Book Review: Natural Signs and Knowledge of God

Natural Signs and Knowledge of God is a little book by C. Stephen Evans that deserves more attention than it has received. A contribution to contemporary debates in religious epistemology, this volume begins by considering a certain historical puzzle surrounding the traditional theistic proofs of natural theology: On the one hand, they have continued to capture the imagination of thinkers throughout the ages, having some intuitive pull even for their most insightful critics. On the other hand, they have failed to be widely convincing even for many of those who consider them carefully and honestly. Taking this curiosity as a launching point for his own model, Evans sets off in a new direction—a sort of via media between reformed epistemology and evidentialism—by introducing the concept of a “natural sign” to religious epistemology.

Before presenting his model, Evans lays out some desiderata for a plausible epistemology of religious belief. “When a hypothesis is posed,” he explains, “one must begin by thinking about what one would expect to find if that hypothesis were true.”[1] What might we expect with regard to knowledge of God if in fact God exists? Though I lack the space to reproduce his case here, Evans argues that two principles would likely hold: the Wide Accessibility Principle, according to which knowledge of God is widely accessible to people around the world and throughout time, and the Easy Resistibility Principle, which states that knowledge of God, whether widely accessible or not, is easily resistible. Those who wish not to believe are not coerced. But besides meeting these conditions, we noted above that Evans also wants his epistemology to shed light on what he calls the problem of natural theology: that the arguments of natural theology have persistently held wide appeal, yet nevertheless fail to convince many careful thinkers. This is where natural signs enter the picture.

Evans borrows the concept of a natural sign from Thomas Reid. For Reid, natural signs (of which sensations are the paradigmatic example) are fallible, noninferential indicators of some reality that lies behind them. They function as causal (or quasi-causal) connections between the world on the one hand, and the judgments that we form about the world on the other hand. They generate in us beliefs about the world and provide us with a sort of direct awareness of the object or objects we encounter. And though we are disposed to respond to natural signs with certain judgments about the world, many of them are resistible. For Reid, both sensations and the objects of perception can be natural signs. My visual sensation of your smiling face is a natural sign indicating the presence of your smiling face. Your smiling face, on the other hand, might itself function as a natural sign, indicating that you are happy. Evans points out that facial and bodily characteristics, if interpreted as natural signs, show that natural signs need not be irresistible, nor are they restricted to internal mental phenomena. This is important since, as Evans goes on to argue, the same is true for theistic natural signs (one cannot help but be reminded of Plantinga’s God and Other Minds at this point).

What, then, is a theistic natural sign? A theistic natural sign is some feature of the world that “points” to God in a way similar to how a Reidian natural sign “points” to the reality that lies behind it. Evans explains that:

Natural signs of God would be a means whereby a person becomes aware of God. As is the case for Reidian natural signs, theistic natural signs should be linked upstream to what the sign signifies, and downstream to a conception of what is signified as well as a belief in the reality of what is signified. In other words, a natural sign for God ought to be something that is connected both to God and to a human disposition to conceive of God and believe in God’s reality.[2]

Evans argues that theistic natural signs not only dispose us to form beliefs about God, but also provide a de re awareness of God, and that

…this is quite consistent with the fact that, for all kinds of reasons, the persons who have de re awareness of God may have very different beliefs about the object of their awareness. And many of those beliefs may be false. This is one way in which a natural sign differs from a theistic argument…since an argument has as its final goal acceptance of a conclusion—that is, a proposition. Theistic natural signs dispose individuals to form beliefs as well, but fundamentally serve to point to a reality. It will turn out to be the case that individuals can be in touch with that reality while having many false beliefs about it.[3]

Armed with the notion of a theistic natural sign, Evans returns to the traditional proofs of natural theology. At the heart of the book is Evan’s suggestion that many of the perennial theistic proofs—the cosmological, the teleological, and the moral arguments for God—are based on theistic natural signs. Over the years these arguments have been formulated and reformulated, and Evans briefly surveys the variety of forms that such arguments take. But at the heart of each one, he avers, is one or more theistic natural sign(s). The reason that the cosmological argument has been so persistent and so often reformulated over the years despite its failure to convince many who carefully consider it is that there is a theistic natural sign at its core that Evans calls “cosmic wonder.” As humans, we are struck by the contingency of the universe around us—struck by a sense of cosmic wonder that leads us to ask things like “why is there something rather than nothing?” Evans argues that cosmic wonder brings us into direct awareness of God as the universe’s cause—a being with a more stable sort of existence than anything that we are familiar with in our more mundane experiences. Cosmological arguments tend to have some intuitive force because they appeal (directly or indirectly) to this sense of cosmic wonder—a force that may be present even if the argument is ultimately judged by some to be a failure as an argument.

Other theistic natural signs are similarly embodied in the teleological and moral arguments. Teleological arguments are based on a natural sign that Evans calls “beneficial order.” Experiences of beneficial order in nature can again bring us into direct awareness of God, but this time an awareness of God as a sort of grand designer “…who is intelligent and cares about value.”[4] And various moral arguments are based on at least two different theistic natural signs: our sense of moral obligation and accountability, and our sense that human persons are all intrinsically valuable. These signs point to a God who cares about and values human beings, to whom we are morally accountable, and who is himself a personal being. Whether or not the various theistic proofs based on these natural signs succeed, the signs are there, and they have an epistemic force of their own. And though he does not discuss any others at length, Evans notes that there may be (and likely are) many other theistic natural signs, including signs that have never been formulated into theistic proofs, like certain experiences of gratitude.

In his concluding chapter Evans asks whether theistic natural signs can provide genuine evidence for the existence of God. Here Evans deals with a variety of interesting issues, including the nature of evidence, the internalism/externalism debate in contemporary epistemology, and potential defeaters for beliefs generated by theistic natural signs such as divine hiddenness arguments (primarily Schellenberg’s) and the problem of evil. Evans critiques these potential defeaters, and he argues that although natural signs provide “…basic knowledge, knowledge that is not the product of any inference or argument”[5] they can still be understood as evidence. However, the details here are such that Evan’s model has some important flexibility. Remarkably, he argues that his model is ultimately neutral with regard to the internalist/externalist controversy. In either case, the theist can claim that theistic natural signs provide at least prima facie justification for belief in God. If Evans is right, this is an enormous advantage for his view.

Evans argues that some things, like the fine-tuning of the universe, cannot be theistic natural signs in his sense because they are not widely accessible in such a way that people around the world and throughout history have access to them.[6] Of course, the motivation for this claim is the Wide Accessibility Principle that he defends at the beginning of the book. But it seems to this reviewer that Evan’s defense of the Wide Accessibility Principle only requires that knowledge of God be widely accessible, not that any given theistic natural sign be widely accessible. So long as natural signs are such that virtually everyone throughout the world and throughout history can have knowledge of God, it doesn’t matter whether there are some natural signs that are less widely available.

Evans has made a genuine and valuable contribution to the philosophy of religion and religious epistemology. He has managed to pull together some important insights from natural theology on the one hand, and views more along the lines of reformed epistemology on the other. Whether or not his model in all of its details will hold up in the long run is hard to predict, but, in this reviewer’s opinion, Evans has taken a step in the right direction.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Justin Mooney is a graduate student from Michigan. He has a degree in art and design, and he is currently studying philosophy of religion. He plans to become a professor.

[1] Evans, Stephen C. Natural Signs and Knowledge of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010 p. 12
[2] Ibid. p. 35
[3] Ibid. p. 36
[4] Ibid. p. 147
[5] Ibid. p. 170
[6] Ibid. p. 90

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Brian Auten is the founder emeritus of Apologetics315. He is also director of Reasonable Faith Belfast. Brian holds a Masters degree in Christian Apologetics and has interviewed over 150 Christian apologists. His background is in missions, media direction, graphic design, and administration. Brian started Apologetics315 in 2007 to be an apologetics hub to equip Christians to defend the faith.

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