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Religious experience - Sam Norton's analogy with moral conscience

The rev. Sam has tried defending religious experience by drawing an anology with our moral conscience. It's a popular move, I think. Here it is:

SAM SAID: “Stephen, if we substituted 'conscience' for 'religious experience' would it make any difference to your arguments? This too is something which people claim to experience, and which leads them to do very different things etc, so why should we trust our conscience?”

STEPHEN REPLIES: Interesting analogy.

Well, first off, you shouldn’t be entirely trusting of your conscience; I’m not of mine. If reason etc. otherwise indicates your moral intuitions are in error, then you should reject them. So, for example, common moral intuitions on homosexuality, the role of women, on other species, etc. – are mistaken. But note there's also good reason to suppose that e.g. your religious experience of an all-powerful, all-good God is mistaken (the evidential problem of evil).

Second, and more importantly, is your moral conscience a quasi-perceptual faculty for determining extra-mental, super-natural facts? That’s what your analogy with the sensus divinitatis requires. But, of course, that our moral conscience is such a quasi-perceptual faculty is highly unlikely. Certainly, you haven't given us any reason to suppose it is.

More probably, our moral conscience is something that has evolved to help us (or our genes) survive and reproduce.

The bottom line is – like a great many philosophers, I am, for good reasons, skeptical of the suggestion that my moral conscience is a quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing non-natural facts. But then I’m similarly skeptical about the suggestion that I’m equipped with a sensus divinitatis - quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing super-natural God-facts.

True, I do often trust the deliverances my moral conscience. But I can do that while being very skeptical of the suggestion that it’s a quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing super-natural facts.

But now notice that you CAN'T similarly trust your religious experience that there’s a God, while remaining skeptical of the suggestion that it’s a quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing super-natural facts.

To argue: "Aha, you consider yourself reasonable in trusting the deliverances of your moral conscience. So you must acknowledge that I am reasonable in trusting my religious experiences!" is to overlook this key difference between moral conscience and sensus divinitatis.

So your analogy fails, I think.


Why do you assume I'm defending "religious experience"? I asked you two questions in order to clarify your position. Personally I'm with Teresa of Avila who asked God to stop giving her visions because they were distracting her from running her monastery.

Several things arise:
- I agree that we shouldn't simply trust our conscience - people are often mistaken and consciences need to be educated; at the same time if there were no consciences to be educated then all tyrants would sleep more soundly;
- you say 'if reason etc. otherwise indicates your moral intuitions are in error...' - I don't believe that reason can show that our moral intuitions are in error, the job of reason is to show that some moral intuitions are in conflict with other moral intuitions - it's impotent to go further than that;
- do you have something specific in mind when you say (presumably referring to me?): "your religious experience of an all-powerful, all-good God"?
- I don't have anything at stake in defending a 'sensus divinitas', and I would certainly NOT want to argue for some sort of empirical foundation on which to ground religious faith. Those who do (I think Swinburne does, doesn't he?) I see as not understanding the nature of religious faith;
- I'm very happy to run with the idea that our conscience is not a "quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing non-natural facts" - but then I'd also be happy for that to be a description of the insights that may be generated by "religious experience" as well. I don't see God as a supernatural fact, which I think is what you see God as (ie God is some item available to some sort of perception). Or perhaps that is what Plantinga sees God as?

Given that, I agree with most of your arguments on this topic :o)
Anonymous said…
"I don't see God as a supernatural fact, which I think is what you see God as (ie God is some item available to some sort of perception). Or perhaps that is what Plantinga sees God as?"

What do you see god as?
Stephen Law said…
Sorry Sam, I assume that, as you are a "Reverend", you would be defending the reasonableness of belief based on religious experience. I was also assuming you believe in God, as traditionally conceived!

What do you believe in, then? You're not going to go all via negativa on me, are you?
Stephen Law said…
You are a Rev., right?
Anonymous said…
A scientific view of moral intuition:
I am a Rev - I even try to be an orthodox one, and at least some of the time I succeed(!) So I would say I do believe in God - as traditionally conceived. So far as I can tell, the God you don't believe in is not that traditional God.
Anonymous said…
As far as I an see it there are two distinct versions of the SD. One is a sense like smell or touch. I think this is what the telescope analogy addresses.

The second kind seems to be more like an aesthetic appreciation e.g. "sense of beauty" or "sense of justice". This is surely what Sam's analogy covers.

Both analogies seem to me to undermine the reliability (or existence) of the SD but from different ends.
Anonymous said…
If you believe in god as traditionally conceived, how is it that you still yet do not believe in a god that is a 'supernatural fact'; 'an object of perception' ??
James James said…
"So I would say I do believe in God - as traditionally conceived. So far as I can tell, the God you don't believe in is not that traditional God."

Oh, tish and pish. This is just the same as McGrath's "The God that Dawkins does not believe in is 'a petty... bully'. Come to think of it, I don’t believe in a God like that either. In fact, I don't know anybody who does."

Straw man. Dawkins doesn't believe in anything supernatural, and neither does Stephen.
Hugo/Kosh3 - part of the problem here is what you understand by 'supernatural' - which you seem to be using in a way that would be unrecognisable to the way that the term was used in Christian thought up to about 1200 or so. The 'traditional' God is supernatural, but not in the sense you mean by it.

I'd tend to agree with McGrath - except that I do know people who believe in such an entity.
Anonymous said…

Interested in what varieties of supernatural there are. Could you perhaps clarify this?
Anonymous said…
Sam, "supernatural" generally has two accepted definitions, one relates to an order of existence beyond the visible (even knowable) universe, e.g., gods, spirits, etc., and the other definition to transcending the laws of science (nature). It seems both describe anything that would operate and exist independently of the natural laws of science that pertains to the rest of the universe. Would this not describe your "traditional God"?
Terence - the first of those definitions might be reworked into something that applies, but the second one is entirely post-scientific revolution and doesn't apply at all.

The medieval (and prior) understanding of supernatural was locked into an understanding of human nature as requiring assistance to be moral - so the theological term grace was understood as referring to something supernatural, ie when someone did something good (eg practiced forgiveness) this was understood as something that they could not have achieved on their own, but only by God's assistance (=grace). There is no sense of either divine intervention (because God wasn't absent in the first place) nor of any sense of transgressing physical laws.

Most of the objections to God as 'supernatural' that I come across tend to see a) an existing physical system describable by certain regularities (= laws of physics = 'natural') and b) an entity of some sort which intervenes in that system and breaks the laws (= 'supernatural').

That's a debate which makes sense only within the Newtonian system, including the Newtonian conception of God - which wasn't traditional. The traditional understanding of God a) doesn't allow for a 'system' of creation that is ultimately separable from the creator, and b) has no place for any notion of 'intervention'.

So, in short, the traditional understanding of God is not 'supernatural' in at least the second sense of the definitions you quote. (I think other things apart from God qualify as supernatural if you accept the first - time for instance, certainly consciousness, love, morality etc etc but that's a whole other argument.)
Anonymous said…

So, in the traditional view then God was simply part of nature then although not physical in the sense of occupying space?
James James said…
As far as I'm concerned, physicalism (the belief that the only kind of stuff that exists is physical stuff) and not-believing-in-anything-supernatural are the same.

"There is no sense of either divine intervention (because God wasn't absent in the first place) nor of any sense of transgressing physical laws."

If there's no intervention, then a world with god (and "grace") is the same as one without. And the theologians call themselves "sophisticated".
Anonymous said…
Sam, if Teresa had visions, given to her by God, then God was intervening in his Creation (in the life of the creature Teresa in particular).

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