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The Way of Knowing: How Your Dog Can Teach Your Skepticism

October 21, 2020


Imagine, after going through the drive-thru of your favorite fast-food restaurant, you are greeted at the door of your home by your loving dog. Your dog recognizes you, is excited to see you, and begins to wag its tail. However, it takes mere seconds for him to smell the food and he begins to bark (and will continue) until you open the bag and share your spoils. As you take out a fry and throw it across the room, the dog rushes over and devours what is perceived as rightly his.

Our experience of animals leads us to naturally believe that animals possess knowledge. For example, the dog in the above scenario knew that you were home and knew that there was food to be eaten. She might not have the ability to reflect on important matters or make sophisticated calculations, but she does possess knowledge. Some philosophers think the best way to categorize the sort of knowledge that can be had by animals and young children is to refer to this type of knowledge as animal knowledge.

How do animals and young children possess knowledge? Well, it surely isn’t by way of reflecting on data and construing hypotheses; nor is it by formulating airtight syllogisms. No. Animals and children possess cognitive faculties that are hardwired to produce certain beliefs, and the proper function of those faculties enables them to know. So when a fry appears in front of your dog, your dog has an experience that leads him to believe that ‘there is food right there.’ The dog’s knowledge is the result of his cognitive faculties functioning properly.

Adult humans come to know many of their beliefs in the same way. Imagine you’re a new graduate student in philosophy. Being new to the program, you want to make a good impression, so you get to class early to await your professor. As your professor walks in, you immediately form the belief that ‘there is a person right there.’ You don’t calculate the probability (consciously or subconsciously) that there is a person standing in front of you; nor do you think about various other hypotheses that might explain your experience and from this reflection come to a conclusion. Instead, from looking in a particular direction, you obtain a strong experience that leads you to believe the proposition in question. The belief isn’t based off of an argument or inference. Philosophers would call your belief ‘properly basic’ insofar as it is properly formed, and it isn’t based on any argument.

Of course, you can question whether or not your professor is actually in front of you. You can explain your experience by way of postulating that you are really a brain in the matrix and certain sophisticated machines have put you in a simulation. Or perhaps you could think that only you and some immaterial demon exist, and the demon is causing you to have all sorts of false beliefs. Nonetheless, reflecting on these possibilities won’t likely move you much. Upon consideration, you can’t kick the belief that ‘there is a person right there.’

Might religious belief be formed in a similar way? The famous Reformed Theologian, John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, argues that humans have a sensus divinitatis (sense of divinity). The Reformed philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, understands the sensus divinitatis as a faculty aimed toward producing beliefs about God and his activities. Plantinga argues that as far as we know, humans possess this faculty, and when it is properly functioning, it enables humans to know that God exists. The  following illustration will help further elucidate this point:

You are basking in the sun on a hot and summer day. As you open your eyes and look around, you see a delicate flower. You pick up the flower and begin to examine it in detail.  This leads you to enter a state of awe as you find yourself with the immediate belief that ‘God created this flower.’

If the cognitive faculties responsible for producing this belief were properly functioning when you formed the immediate belief, it could rightfully be said that you possess knowledge that ‘God created this flower.’ Notice, that in this scenario, the design plan of your cognitive faculties doesn’t require that your belief be based off of arguments. Rather, your belief is properly basic. In the same way that you know other persons exist, you could know that God exists. This of course isn’t to say that there aren’t good arguments for God’s existence. In fact, I have published defenses of various arguments, including the “first way” of St. Thomas Aquinas. Instead, I’m merely suggesting that as far as we know, we can know that God exists, and this knowledge wouldn’t be based on arguments. Like a dog’s belief that “food is over there,” our belief about God and his activities can be rational without having access to arguments.

Now, Catholics reading this might be concerned. So far, I have mentioned two Reformed thinkers but not any Catholic ones. No need to worry! The core of what I have advocated for here is taught by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Henry Newman, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. In fact, as Dr. Gregory Stacey has recently shown, the position advocated for here seems to be well-grounded in the overall Catholic tradition.

So, next time you’re confronted by a skeptic who claims that you must have access to arguments in order for a belief to be rational, take him to play fetch with your dog. There’s a lesson to be learned from the good boy!