Natural Signs and the Knowledge of God
C. Stephen Evans opens his new book, Natural Signs and the Knowledge of God, with a puzzle familiar to anyone who has read widely in natural theology and apologetics:
[A]rguments for God's existence are frequently criticized and declared to be conclusively refuted, yet the arguments continue to be presented. Some people, including well-trained, well-educated individuals-philosophers, scientists, and other intellectuals-find the arguments convincing. Many others, equally well-trained and well-educated, find them to be without merit. The arguments never seem to convince the critics. However, the refutations never seem to silence the proponents, who continue to refine and develop the arguments. (pp.1-2)
There are several conceivable explanations for this impasse. One is that either the proponents are simply blind to the deficiencies of the arguments, perhaps because of some ulterior, psychological need to believe in God, or the critics conversely are blind to the cogency of the arguments, perhaps because, as Thomas Nagel once admitted, "I don't want the Universe to be like that." Another is that this is simply the nature of philosophical arguments: I doubt there has ever been a knock-down proof of any substantial philosophical position in history.
Evans' purpose in his book is to offer a rather different explanation. He suggests that theistic arguments derive whatever force they have from the experience of what he calls 'natural signs' that point to God's reality. For example, behind the cosmological argument lies a widely experienced sensation of 'cosmic wonder' which tends to produce the belief that the world we see around us is merely contingent, and that beneath it must lie a deeper, more stable reality that is not contingent (more on this below). Theistic arguments, on this view, are attempts to reconstruct what is usually an immediate, intuitive perception as an inferential chain of reasoning. Even if these reconstructions fail to convince, however, there is still the experience of the natural sign itself that does not go away.
Interestingly, two of the foremost critics of theistic arguments have acknowledged this. David Hume is well known for his scathing critique of the analogical design arguments popular in his day, but perhaps less well known for concession that, despite his objections, the impression the world gives of intelligent design is very hard to shake. As Philo admits to Cleanthes in Part 10 of the Dialogues, "Formerly, when we argued concerning the natural attributes of intelligence and design, I needed all my skeptical and metaphysical subtlety to elude your grasp. In many views of the universe, and of its parts...the beauty and fitness of final causes strike us with such irresistible force, that all objections appear (what I believe they really are) mere cavils and sophisms; nor can we imagine how it was ever possible for us to repose any weight on them." Of course since this statement occurs in a dialogue between fictitious interlocutors, and none of them (not even Philo) represents Hume's view consistently, we should take this concession with a grain of salt. But in his introduction to the Natural History of Religion, Hume himself makes a similar statement. After noting that the two questions any inquiry into religion must face concern its foundation in human reason and human nature he suggests that "Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious, at least, the clearest solution. The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational inquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion." Granted that what Hume means by 'genuine Theism' and 'Religion' may fall far short of full orthodox conviction, he nevertheless witnesses to the force of the impression of intelligent order in the world.
Immanuel Kant is also well known for his devastating criticisms of all theistic arguments based upon 'pure reason', including the design argument. However, as Evans points out, "What is remarkable is that in Kant's eyes the failure of the argument as a proof of God's existence by no means undermines the power and force of the design we observe in nature as legitimately leading us to belief in God." (p.23) Indeed, as Kant argues:
It would therefore not only be uncomforting but utterly vain to attempt to diminish in any way the authority of this argument. Reason, constantly upheld by this ever-increasing evidence, which, though empirical, is yet so powerful, cannot be so depressed through doubts suggested by subtle and abstruse speculation, that it is not at once aroused from the indecision of all melancholy reflection, as from a dream, by one glance at the wonders of nature and the majesty of the universe-ascending from height to height up to the all-highest, from the conditioned to its conditions, up to the supreme and unconditioned Author. (quoted p.23)
Although Evans does not discuss him, we can actually add a third unlikely witness: Charles Darwin, the very man reputed to have once and for all eliminated the need for an intelligent designer to explain biological adaptation. Certainly Darwin realized, as his critics did, that his theory of natural selection refuted Paley's design argument. His gradual transition from an unreflective theist with firm belief in both the design argument and the authority of the Bible to a skeptic and finally an agnostic is also well known. Despite his skepticism, however, he too could never shake completely the impression that, as Hume put it, the whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author. For example, in a well-known letter to Asa Gray, he wrote that "I had no intention to write atheistically...I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force." In his autobiography he refers to "the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wondrous universe, including man with his capacity of looking backwards and far into futurity, as a result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist." (Quoted from Dennis Lamoureux, Theological Insights from Charles Darwin) Of course, as in the case of Hume, we must not press these statements too far. The problem of evil was a terrible dilemma for Darwin, he doubted whether the mind could be trusted when it came to such conclusions (concerning intelligent design) and admitted that his views fluctuated over the course of the years and that he should better be described as an agnostic. But it is still noteworthy that Darwin admits he 'feels compelled' to posit a First Cause to explain the universe. It suggests that Evans may be on to something with his distinction between theistic arguments and the natural signs they derive from.
Evans presents his explanation of the success (or otherwise) of theistic arguments within the context of the more ambitious goal of presenting a new framework for natural theology. He briefly argues for the religious legitimacy of natural theology despite concerns that it doesn't provide saving knowledge of God and does not provide grounds for total commitment, as special revelation does. At the very least, Evans suggests, natural theology can undermine the givenness of atheistic naturalism and make robust supernaturalism a 'live option' in our intellectual context. Taking his cues from Reformed epistemology, however, he also wants to understand how a person might come to knowledge of God without access to highly sophisticated philosophical arguments and without relying entirely on propositional evidence. He suggests that ordinary people may become aware of the reality of God on the basis of their experience of natural signs that point to God's existence, such as cosmic wonder, the impression of benevolent, intelligent order in the world, the experience of moral obligation or their awareness of the inherent worth and dignity of human persons, without understanding or even being aware of the cosmological, teleological and moral arguments debated in philosophical circles. Even for people who can understand the arguments and find them only weakly persuasive or even flawed, these signs may properly undergird continued belief in God and are good evidence, albeit of a non-propositional kind, for His existence (conversely, those who find that the current intellectual context undermines the persuasiveness of the natural signs may be reassured by the existence of more rigorous, reflective arguments to shore up their faith).
However, Evans also recognizes that these natural signs are not universally compelling, and can be undermined in a variety of ways:
Signs have to be perceived, and once perceived must be 'read.' Some signs are harder to read than others, or, one might say, easier to interpret in alternative ways, even if not all of the possible interpretations are equally plausible. The natural signs that point to God's reality are signs that can be interpreted in more than one way and thus are sometimes misread and sometimes not even perceived as signs. They point to God but do not do so in a coercive manner. To function properly as pointers, they must be interpreted properly. (p.2)
But according to Evans, this situation is exactly what we should expect of the Christian God, if He exists. He proposes a pair of 'Pascalian constraints' on the evidence we should expect to find of God. The first is what he calls the 'wide accessibility' principle: if God desires a personal relationship with His creatures, presumably evidence of His reality would be readily available, even to people without philosophical training. This is consistent with St. Paul's claim that "what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them." (Romans 1:19) In counterpoint, however, Evans proposes the 'easy resistibility' principle: God doesn't want His existence to be overwhelmingly obvious, because He wants people to be free to either respond in love or reject Him. Both principles are evident in Pascal's famous remark:
If he had wished to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened, he could have done so by revealing himself to them so plainly that they could not doubt the truth of his essence...It was therefore not right that he should appear in a manner manifestly divine and absolutely capable of convincing all men, but neither was it right that his coming should be so hidden that he could not be recognized by those who sincerely sought him. He wished to make himself perfectly recognizable to them. Thus wishing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart and hidden from those who sun him with all their heart, he has qualified our knowledge of him by giving signs which can be seen by those who seek him and not by those who do not. There is enough light for those who desire only to see and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition. (Quoted p.16)
Surprisingly, Evans derives further support for the reasonableness of these Pascalian constraints from arch-skeptic John Schellenberg, who agrees that the Christian God (or at least a generically loving, personal God) would supply evidence within these parameters. Schellenberg argues that the evidence should be much more widely available and much less easily resistible, but Evans argues against these more stringent constraints (pp.160-169)
To understand Evans' argument we need to understand what he means by the term 'natural sign', which derives from philosopher Thomas Reid's theory of perception. Reid was an opponent of representationalism in philosophy of mind, according to which we do not have epistemic access to external objects, but only representations of them in our mind. Such a position can all too easily lead to radical skepticism about the external world. Instead, Reid suggested that perception puts us directly in touch with objects in the external world, and natural signs are sensations or states of affairs that put us in touch with them. That is, natural signs point beyond themselves to the reality they signify. In order for a sensation or state of affairs to be a natural sign, it must have an appropriate causal link with the reality it signifies and produce, or at least tend to be produce, belief in that reality. This process is not inferential: we do not observe the sensation and then infer that there is an object present. The process is psychologically immediate. For example, the sensation of hardness we feel when we touch a solid object makes us believe that we are touching that object. We do not say, 'Hmm, I'm experiencing a sensation of hardness, so I must be touching the object': the sensation and our awareness of the object it puts us in touch with, are inseparable. As an example of a state of affairs which is a natural sign, Evans suggests our awareness of other's emotions when we 'read' their faces. Again, we do not say to ourselves, 'Hmm, that person's eyebrows have been twitching with higher frequency and there is a tinge of red in his cheeks, so he must be flustered.' The move from observing a person's facial features to a conviction about their emotional state is immediate.
Not all natural signs are equally persuasive, however. Some, like the sensation of hardness, are for all practical purposes indubitable. Others, however, like facial gestures, are dependent for their persuasiveness on experience and background knowledge. We may suspect that someone is trying to trick us, for example, and thus will have a defeater for our perception of that person's emotional state (it is interesting, however, that even when we know that someone is acting, we allow ourselves to react emotionally to their character). So perception is not infallible, but we are hardwired to accept as undeniable at least some natural signs; otherwise we would be forced into radical skepticism about the external world.
Although generally we are aware, not of the signs, but the thing they signify, we sometimes focus attention on the signs themselves and attempt to reconstruct the connection between the sign and the thing it signifies in propositional form. This is what happens with theistic arguments: although a person can become aware of the reality of God through the signs directly, by focusing on the signs themselves philosophers can construct inferential arguments that posit God as the best explanation for the existence of the natural sign. Even if these arguments fail, the sign itself still creates a belief, or at least the tendency to form a belief, in the reality of God.
This view is compatible, both with the fact that many people do not believe in God, and that they have widely varying beliefs about God. The persuasiveness of theistic natural signs, unlike the sensation of hardness, is highly variable and dependent, among other things, on upbringing and education. And merely being aware of the reality of something does not guarantee that we form the right beliefs about it. Evans gives the example of seeing your sister cross the street in the fog, and thinking that it's the neighbor you're seeing. The natural sign of her movements puts you in touch with her reality, even though you are not consciously aware of her.
With this framework in place, Evans proceeds to discuss the cosmological, teleological and moral theistic arguments, in order to assess their strengths and weaknesses and discern what natural sign might lie behind their appeal. As I mentioned above, the cosmological argument refers to what Evans calls 'cosmic wonder': "Not only is it the case that I might never have existed; my parents and friends might never had existed...In the end it may strike one as odd that there should be a universe at all, a world with objects, all of which possess the property of 'might-never-have-been-ness.'" This perception of the world's contingency "is closely linked to the contrasting notion of something that lacks this character, something whose existence is in some way impervious to non-existence...implicit in our experience of cosmic wonder, in which we perceive the world as contingent, is a grasp of the idea that there could be a different manner of existing, a reality that has a deeper and firmer grip on existence that the things we see around us." (pp.62-63) As evidence of the 'wide accessibility' of cosmic wonder Evans cites ancient origin stories, which presuppose people's awareness that the world around them required explanation, as well as confessions by unbelievers such as J.J.C. Smart and Albert Camus, who felt the force of cosmic wonder even if they could not go all the way to belief in God.
Evans discusses the different argument in this order (cosmological, teleological, then moral) because they give us progressively more information about the nature and character of God. Cosmic wonder is a necessarily vague impression of a necessary being, while the natural sign behind the teleological argument, the experience of beneficial order, tells us that this being is an agent with purposes. Finally, the natural signs behind the moral argument, the experience of moral obligation and the perception of persons as having an inherent dignity and worth, tell us that this intelligent being cares about us and what we do.
Given this framework, then, it would seem that we can acquire a significant amount of 'natural' knowledge of God, apart from special revelation. But how can we be sure that our experience of these signs is not just an illusion? Hume was well aware of this worry. In a letter concerning the Dialogues to his friend Gilbert Elliot, he wrote, "The Propensity of the Mind towards [the conclusion of intelligent design], unless that Propensity were as strong and universal as that to believe in our Senses and Experience, will still, I am afraid, be esteem'd a suspicious Foundation...We must endeavor to prove that this Propensity is somewhat different from our Inclination to find our own Figures in the Clouds, our Face in the Moon, our Passions and Sentiments even in inanimate matter. Such an Inclination may, and ought to be controul'd, and can never be a legitimate Ground of Assent." (Hume's Writings on Religion, p.26) The modern cognitive science of religion could possibly justify this worry, by demonstrating that the cognitive faculties which produce religious beliefs are evolutionary by-products of other, survival-conducive cognitive faculties, and thus are no more reliable than our tendency to see faces in the clouds. But Evans argues that this conclusion is unwarranted: our capacity for higher mathematics, for example, was surely not directly survival-conducive, but instead piggy-backed on other, more basic cognitive capacities. Clearly, evolutionary by-products can be quite reliable in putting us in touch with reality. Furthermore, as Christians we should expect humans to have an innate awareness of God, and cognitive science research confirms that belief in God or gods is not merely or even primarily the result of social influence, as atheists want to believe, but the result of cognitive processes that manifest themselves even in very young children, before they receive any instruction from parents or community (see pp.38-42, 155-157)
I particularly appreciate Evans' discussion of the relevance of evolutionary theory for the design intuition and argument. He suggests that evolutionary theory only undermines the perception of beneficial order if we have good reason to think that God would not use evolution as His method of creation. He argues very eloquently, and I am inclined to agree, that a God as powerful and patient as the Christian God might very well choose to create by an evolutionary process: "If God is eternal or everlasting, it is not clear what it would mean to say that it is 'inefficient' for God to employ a process lasting millions of years...Even if God does place a special value on humans, there is no reason he cannot regard the whole process as one that has intrinsic value, a grand show in which he takes delight. God may relish each and every species that passes on the scene of natural history, or even every individual." (pp.91-92) I think that describing the natural order as 'beneficial' rather than 'intelligent' (even though the latter is implied by the former) helps circumvent the worry that evolution renders God superfluous as an explanation for the ordering of the natural world. Regardless of the mechanism that produces the ordering, it seems clear that the natural world is so ordered as to produce states of affairs of inherent value, including the emergence of rational, self-aware, valuing beings who can respond and give praise to God. Therefore, it is quite reasonable to perceive or infer the reality of a Creator and Orderer who aimed to produce those valuable things.
As long as this post has been, I have barely scratched the surface of Evans' insightful argument. In barely 200 pages he provides an accurate summary assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the major theistic arguments, identifies the natural signs that they refer to, and proposes a new framework for natural theology that is authentically Christian and intellectually robust. It is accessible enough for the nonspecialist, but even those who have been studying these issues for a long time will gain many new insights. Without exaggerating, I think that this book is the most important current discussion of natural theology, and should form the basis for all subsequent work in the field.