Thursday, January 16, 2014

I can smell bullshit, or is sensus divinitatis really a sense?

Several years ago, I lost my sense of smell and much of my sense of taste. Over the years, they've crept back, which is usually nice. My experience raises a fun epistemic question that I get to wrestle with frequently (and get asked about all the time): is your sense of smell back to normal yet?

Strictly speaking, I've realized that I can't know. I think had it come back quickly enough, on the order of days or maybe even a few weeks instead of over several years, I probably could have claimed so. Where it is still obviously different (I cannot detect even the faintest whiff of the scent of pine to this day), I can know it isn't. For most things, the matter is far cloudier since I definitely smell and taste things now, many of those smells and tastes seem relatively normal, but I no longer know what "normal" means. Is this what marinara sauce is "supposed" to taste like? In fact, I don't know that "normal" exists outside of "normal for me, at this time, in this state of nervous system function," which more than slightly misses the point.

So I realize that not only do I not know if things smell and taste normally for me, I also realize I can never know this outside unreliable appeals to certain memories. For instance, I recall liking certain flavors (limes and, but not with, hoppy beers, to name two) and do not enjoy them now--with a sense that they're somehow "off."

It's a funny thing. It has also given me quite a lot of opportunity to observe and think about my senses. It's one thing to lose a sense. It's another thing to lose it and then suddenly get it back. It's still another to lose it and then experience it creeping back so slowly, over a span of years, that most of the time you don't realize it's happening.

My sensory epistemic gap takes the fore relatively frequently, either by having a taste of something like lime or a double IPA (just to see where I am with those) or by my short list of extremely terrible "superpowers." I can, for instance, thanks to a mild case of athlete's foot a few months after I lost my senses, smell body fungus with incredible acuity--like from a few yards behind someone so afflicted, should I be walking behind them at the store. This "power," as it turns out, sucks. It's like certain smells are missing, certain smells are too "loud," and the milieu of smells that interact to mask and modify each other at the experiential level is all out of whack.

One relatively neat observation that really fuels my epistemic impasse here is that exposure seems to hasten what I deem to be recovery--except with pine. I don't know if this is taking place at the level of the olfactory nerve or in the brain that interprets signals from it, but it seems that the more I am exposed to certain scents or flavors, the sooner they become as close to "normal" as I can recall.

So, I have this constant sense of approaching "normal" with a lingering observation that I won't know if I ever get there. Given this, though, I bear also an awareness that it is likely that my "superpower" to observe the disparity will fade over time, rendering me less and less able to claim certainty on a question that will become more and more meaningless as time marches on. Is my sense of smell normal yet? I don't know.

One other curious phenomenon associated with this experience bears mentioning: phantom smells. This is a fascinating experience that I would have been mystified by had I not helped people recover from minor surgeries in the past. When sensory nerves are damaged in a surgery and then "wake back up," to quote the surgeon, often odd physical sensations of pain, tingling, or burning appear, last a few seconds to a few minutes, and then go away. I get this with smells from time to time, lasting usually ten or fifteen seconds and coming on suddenly and quite intensely.

When these happen, there's nothing there, but I smell things. Usually the scents are of something burning or slightly acrid, but they have been of other things, most pleasantly popcorn (twice) and strawberries (once). Today I had one, in fact, triggering this line of thought. (It was vomit, for those curious, and as these events often indicate that a previously unsmellable scent is now going to be smellable in some degree, I'm not particularly thrilled.)

Living in this position, I've had a great deal of time to think about the senses and experience and, being who I am, epistemology. This brings me to discuss the hypothetical sensus divinitatis that we allegedly possess, like a real sense, to detect the divine. I make no secret of the fact that I strongly suspect that this sense is bullshit, which I can figuratively smell as strongly as ever even if I can't literally smell it at all (though I probably could, if so inclined, after only a few weeks on a cattle ranch).

Here's a difference between the unverifiable sensus divinitatis and our usual "five" senses. (I will not go into the really neat discussion that five is probably way off, nor do I wish to give the impression that I think that there are only five physical senses.)
  • Sight: If I were blind, I could not see, so how could I know that there is anything to see? Photons. A reliable photon detector, which is what the rods and cones in our retinas are, would reveal that there is something there that is interpreted as sight.
  • Hearing: If I were deaf, I could not hear, so how could I know that there is anything to hear? Vibrations. These can sometimes be felt, but they can always be detected by instruments sensitive to them. Indeed, they can be detected way outside of the range of human hearing.
  • Touch: Pressure. Heat. Cold. All measurable.
  • Taste and smell: Both of these rely upon the detection of certain chemical compounds that lead to an experience of smell, much as the detection of photons leads to an experience of sight, the detection of certain vibrations leads to an experience of sound, and the detection of pressure, heat, or cold leads to an experience of feel. Those compounds can still detected whether on tongue, in nostril, or in a lab.
Of course, my intention is not to elaborate on how these physical events are interpreted as experience. It's sufficient for me to say that somehow these physical events are interpreted as experiences.

Now, sensus divinitatis. This hypothetical sense detects "the divine," giving those who claim it something that they can argue is direct, incontrovertible evidence that the divine exists, usually God, which is to say some specific take on God via some religion. But what is God made of? How could we verify this sense as we can our physical senses?

Consider two cases. If I lack this sense, how could I possibly know it points to something real? That is, what's the independent corroboration? Instead, even if I suspect I have this sense, how could I know it points to something real? I get phantom smells--a real experience--of things that aren't real, so how can I know any sense I claim is of the divine isn't a phantom of my mind? And note that I have reliable means to test my sense of smell: are the compounds associated with those experiences present or not? (Actually, trying to figure this out in the case of phantom smells is... an adventure and usually relies on no more technological a detector than someone else's nose, when available.)

This question, then, needs an answer: What could we possibly detect that would indicate for us that the sensus divinitatis is detecting the divine so that we can distinguish it from a nervous-system phantom? For all of my other senses, I have something physically evidential to point to, outside of myself, to give credence to the notion that they are detecting something real. This appears not to be the case for the sensus divinitatis, and so it seems to fall squarely into the epistemic wasteland of speculation (dare I say, heavily motivated speculation?--Yes).

I expect, then, that the answer, if one is given, is something unfalsifiable. Because that fails to provide me with any way to know if I'm wrong, should I claim to be using that sense, that's why when I put my nose to the sensus divinitatis, I smell bullshit.


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  2. This seems like an interesting variation on the dualism objection -- what and where is the mechanism in the brain that turns "mind" into something material? At least Descartes had the honesty to search for the organ that detected something he thought was real. That kind of investigation doesn't even seem to occur the proponents of the magical, wonderful, unlocatable sensus divinitatus.

    That's one of the things that offends me most about religious claims -- the extraordinary vanity and self-importance of it all. It seems like a kind of narcissism to demand, without corroboration, that one's subjective experiences are more than what they are.

    1. This reminds me of a questions I asked many times growing up in a demon infested Pentecostalism. If demons invade our minds, where is the interface located? Do demons "sit" at that interface and physically link up with neurons? What would that interface look like?