Let’s consider Beetle’s response to my essay “Perceiving the transcendent God through transcending entities“. While I don’t agree with most of what Beetle says, it is a concise, well written representation of many standard criticisms and thus it is worth our time to critique it carefully.
Beetle begins with a conciliatory statement that conceals a troublingly askew mischaracterization:
“I am happy to concede that humans perceive a sensus divinitatis. I contend that such a sense is not demonstrably useful for anything beyond than a warm fuzzy feeling.”
Wow, that’s smooth. You begin with a compliment and then eviscerate it in the next sentence by spinning it into an insult, kind of like saying “That’s a delightful dress on you Suzie. It actually makes you look thin!”
The perception of the transcendent God that is facilitated through transcending entities does not merely consist of “warm fuzzy feelings”. A warm fuzzy feeling is the kind of thing a person experiences when they return home after a hard day, climb under their quilted covers, and bury their face in their favorite stuffed Care Bear. (Cheer Bear gets my vote.)
In terms of feeling, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans consists not of warm fuzzies but rather of fascination, concern, fear, and an overwhelming sense of the transcendent other. But it is not just feelings. It also includes substantial propositional content such as “God is absolutely good and holy”.
Beetle continues with a complaint:
“What we atheists want to know (taking the liberty to speak for the peanut gallery), and what you have failed to provide even with this post, is how you get from belief in god as properly basic to Christianity as properly basic.”
This is a classic rhetorical strategy. Ignore what an article was seeking to establish by complaining that it didn’t establish something different. One hears this complaint a lot. But oh how spurious it is. Imagine for a moment, an automotive journalist for Motor Trend writing:
“What Honda has failed to provide with the new Civic is a vehicle that can haul large loads of timber.”
Soon after writing something that foolish he’d be sending his resume to cars.com. The Civic wasn’t designed to haul large loads of timber. The Ridgeline was. And this essay wasn’t intended to deal with denominationally specific beliefs. Surely Beetle is aware of this. So why the complaint other than as an attempt to divert attention from what I did argue?
Next, Beetle turns to the actual content of the essay:
“The geologist can back up his explanations to the non-geologists. The person fluent in Hindi can demonstrate that they actually understand what other might take gibberish.”
Will every geologist be able to persuade every non-geologist that s/he is correctly reading the landscape? That’s doubtful. But let’s leave that quibble aside and focus on the main issue. What is the general idea behind these comments? I take it to be something like this:
If Jones perceives x directly then Jones will be able to persuade any person who is unable to perceive x directly that Jones does in fact perceive x.
My guess is that something like this stands behind Beetle’s statements about the persuasive powers of geologists and Hindi speakers. But as principles go this is clearly false. We can think of all sorts of situations where Jones may perceive x and yet be unable to persuade others that he perceives x. Consider two scenarios.
Scenario 1: Jones directly perceives that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Jones’ neighbor is a psychopath who is unable to grasp this principle directly and remains unpersuaded that Jones perceives any such thing directly either.
Clearly a situation like this does not in any way call into question Jones’ immediate perception of that moral principle.
Scenario 2: Jones is a Jazz aficionado who is trying, unsuccessfully, to explain to his nephew (a rabid fan of Insane Clown Posse) that John Coltrane is a superior saxophonist to Kenny G. Jones’ nephew thinks his uncle doesn’t know anything about good music.
Once again, it is absurd to suggest that Jones lacks a perceptual ability simply because he is unable to persuade another person of the deliverances of that perceptual ability.
In conclusion, Jones and Smith walk into Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Jones is immediately overcome by the sense of a majestic presence and like Burton Cummings he is driven to his knees. He perceives in that moment that we are not alone in the universe, that there is a God, and that somehow he has experienced God in that moment in that place.
Smith experiences nothing. The fact that Smith experiences nothing is not itself a defeater to the claim that Jones experienced something divine. Nor does Jones’ inability to persude Smith that he experienced something divine itself constitute a defeater for a third party to believe that Jones did, in fact, experience something divine.