Wednesday, July 16, 2008

God is Not Beyond Logic

It’s a widespread practice among believers to defend God from criticisms with some variation of “God is beyond comprehension,” “your logic is not God’s logic,” or “God it beyond the limitations of our logic.” Even many non-believers seem to be willing that these are fair points and that critiques of God can’t really survive this rebuttal.

But if we scratch below the surface on this kind of talk, we can see that it really doesn’t make any sense; it’s a muddle headed evasion. There is no “our” logic that is separate from God’s logic, or lack thereof. A lot of people who haven’t reflected on what they are saying will throw claims around like these, but they haven’t recognized that what they are suggesting is unintelligible. There are several problems with it. First, they don’t really want to go there. If they try to assert that God is beyond logic, beyond comprehension, or that God’s goodness (and evil) are things that we can’t fathom, then they have effectively disqualified themselves from making any assertions about him. If we can’t understand God’s goodness, or power, or nature, then we certainly aren’t entitled to assert that it is true that God exists or that God is good. If they want to say that belief is reasonable, intelligible, supported by the evidence, rational, or epistemically inculpable, then they can’t also insist that God is beyond comprehension. You can’t have it both ways. On what grounds would you stand where you could assert anything about God if you have categorically denied that we can have any vantage on God? Even worse, on what grounds could you possibly insist that belief in something like this is reasonable when it cannot, by definition, be accessed by us.

Second, there’s a long history on this issue and it’s not just atheists who are holding God to the bounds of logic. The non-logical theist (NLT) needs to Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Plantinga, Craig,Weirenga, and a host of other philosophical theologians who all agree that God’s properties are all had within the boundaries of logic. Without logic, there won’t be any way to say it is true that God is X, because logic is what allows us to demarcate between true and false. Logic and reason are not things you simply discard when the fancy strikes you. Without them, you’ve got no way to even make an assertion. Without them, human speech acts are just gibberish. To make an assertion, even one like, “God is beyond logic,” is to assert that there is some state of affairs that obtains in the world. A sentence of the form, “X is . . . . “ says that something—X—is one way and not another. People like to say that our logic is limited and there could be things beyond it, but if something is not a thing and if it doesn’t have properties, then it isn’t a something at all. To be, to have a property, or to exist is to be one way and not another. The claims “God exists,” or “God is beyond logic,” assert that it is not the case that there is no God, and that it is not the case that God is subject to logic. The irony, and the profound paradox, of the last claim is that the speaker employs the logic of the assertion to try to liberate God from logic. But there’s no escaping that making an assertion is making a claim about the way the world is, and it is denying claims about what the world is not. What rules of assertion are you going to employ to argue for or claim that “logic is limited”? Logic? Then it’s not limited. Something else? How do we discern truth from nonsense, and falsehood in claims about logic itself if not by employing it? Or should we just accept all claims about the limits of logic without any argument or reasons?

If someone tells you that God is beyond the law of non-contradiction, then they’ve just left the realm of any intelligible discourse. There’s nothing to talk about when the fabric of logic that makes assertions possible itself has been rejected. Within the philosophical community, it’s pretty much accepted across the board that the Stone Paradox creates a problem for an unrestricted account of omnipotence. No one who has thought about it seriously thinks that being omnipotent, where “omnipotent” means the unrestricted power to do anything, even logically impossible feats, is even intelligible.

What the NLT is usually trying to do is dismiss questions, objections, or problems that non-believers raise with the notion of God that is so often presented to us. If God is beyond logic, and beyond comprehension, it would seem, then we need not be troubled by what appear to be blinding contradictions and conflicts between different parts of the God story. Suppose the NLT is attempting to salvage a belief in God from problems generated by deductive disproofs or the problem of evil, for example. So he is saying, in effect, believing is correct, there really is a God because these problems are only problems of appearance not real problems for a God who is beyond our conceptual capacities. This all begins to sound a great deal like double speak in Orwell’s Ministry of Truth where war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. If God exists no matter what, in someone’s mind, then it really doesn’t mean anything at all for God to exist.

So either the NLT is subject to the same conceptual limitations that he says you are or he isn’t. If he is, then he’s got the serious dilemma of explaining how his belief makes any sense in a context where he insists that humans cannot form reasonable beliefs. If he’s not subject to the conceptual limitations and he can comprehend God, then he’s contradicting himself.

The atheist, even though they would usually don’t make this kind of dirty move, is entitled to take the very same view is the theist is doing it. The atheist can say, “Look, I know that it seems like to you that all of the evidence and all of the indicators—design in the universe, miracles, etc.—all seem to indicate that God exists, but there’s really just the Big Nothing. But the Big Nothing, the vast empty void, the universal non-consciousness, is so far beyond our comprehension, we just can’t fathom how there can be a Big Nothing despite the fact that there are all of these indicators to the contrary. The Big Nothing doesn’t conform to our puny theistic logic.”

Put the problem another way. If God is beyond our conceptual abilities, and that’s how he can co-exist with evil, or exist even though such a thing seem incoherent, THEN ANYTHING GOES. That is, why can’t it be that the only supernatural being is Satan, or Vishnu, or Sobek, or Eeguu, or the Giant Marshmallow and even though it doesn’t make any sense with all that we know about the world, the Giant Marshmallow is not subject our puny logical and conceptual limitations. This is, of course, the point of the whole Flying Spaghetti Monster movement. The idea that there could be some sort of divine, supernatural pasta creature that is the creator of the universe is completely absurd and defies everything we know about the world. But if the believer gets to pull the “X is beyond comprehension” card—the get-out-of-any-jail-free card—in response to any counter evidence, then the Flying Spaghetti Monster is just as viable as God, or Satan, or the Giant Marshmallow. Since absurdities and counter evidence aren’t being allowed to count against the view, even in principle, then there can be no grounds by which to discriminate between an infinite number of asinine views. Clearly there is something deeply mistaken about a view that implies that there can be no rational grounds for preferring one hypothesis over any other. And now we can begin to see just how serious the cost of taking the NLT view is. Defending God, if we can call it that, in this fashion means giving up the rules that make belief, thought, and reasoning themselves possible. it’s the sort of thing you can say, but you can’t really be serious about because the very act of asserting it makes it clear that what you are asserting is nonsense.

40 comments:

Intergalactic Hussy said...

Well put! Thanks for this; I'll make sure to hang on to this argument/defense. ;)

David B. Ellis said...

I'm currently in the middle of a lengthy discussion at the blog ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS with two christians which has entered closely related territory.

They have brought out the claim that it is impossible for us to make moral judgements about a dieties actions---and so its impossible to judge the barbarities of the Bible as immoral.

If anyone is interested in weighing in the post in question is at:

http://allpossibleworlds.blogspot.com/2008/07/why-is-it-wrong.html

Bryan Goodrich said...

The usual response a Christian might give is to claim we cannot know anything about God .... save for scripture. The scripture is our only evidence for us to say anything about God, but only inasmuch as we can adequately know the scripture (neglecting all the inconsistencies, or a meta-analysis on how to approach scripture, take it literal or figuratively, etc.)

How do you respond to that usual argument which would seem to be the response they would provide to this blog.

David B. Ellis said...

The sensible response:

Whose scripture?

Why should anyone simply assume, as the christian, moslem, etc does, that a particular religion's scriptures are the work of a diety rather than fallible humans?

Reginald Selkirk said...

The usual response a Christian might give is to claim we cannot know anything about God .... save for scripture.

I would respond that the Christian Bible is known to be full of historical and scientific errors, and in may ways contradicts itself, so that it cannot be taken as a reliable source on anything. Any attempts to use it selectively can be written off as cherry-picking. Christians themselves do not take the scriptures of other religions as reliable source (Book of Mormon, Koran, Scientology documents). the God of the Old Testament is 1) morally despicable and 2) essentially dissimilar to the supposedly identical God of the New Testament. I'll stop here, but the arguments against the Bible, or any allegedly divine scriptures, are lenghty and substantive.

Matt McCormick said...

Hi all. Thanks for your comments. David Ellis and Reginald Selkirk are right on the money. The general point here is about the grounds on which someone draws conclusions about God's nature. I take that if someone says that the Bible or some other religious document is a reliable historical source of information about God (they aren't), then that Christian isn't in the Non-Logical-Theist camp. That person is appealing to evidence to support their conclusion. The argument they are offering is something like:
1) If the Bible is a reliable source of information, then we should believe the claims it makes about God.
2) The Bible is a reliable source of information.
3) Therefore, we should believe the claims it makes about God.

The idea that you guys are attacking, rightly, is premise 2. What general grounds could someone have for claiming 2 is true? They would have to appeal to evidence, to other instances of historical records, to archeology, to anthropology, and so on. Those are all appeals to the evidence as proof for 2. That is, all of those attempts to support 2 invoke logic, reason, and evidence, and presuppose that God is not beyond logic, which was my point. But as you guys have pointed out, that argument is embarrassing it is so full of holes.

If this theist then decides to pull the "God is beyond logic" cheat, then they've undermined their own argument. If God is beyond logic, then they can't appeal to history, anthropology, archeology, and ancient documents as sources of information about him. Honestly, I can't see how the whole "Because the Bible Said So" response is even slightly interesting or relevant here. It's completely off the topic of God and logic as far as I can see. You guys are right, however, that the Christians will frequently invoke this kind of answer. So much the worse for them.

On the left of my blog are links to a long list of previous posts. There are numerous entries under Trouble for Christianity. A lot of what I have to say about the Bible is there.

On a related note: I saw a bumper sticker this weekend that said, "Ask Me About Jesus." I thought, "No, you should ask ME about Jesus."

MM

jamie said...

I agree that God is not beyond logic. I believe that reason along with feeling and experience can prove Him out. These are the 3 tools we use to judge all things. Nothing is based purely on reason. We receive sensory input and process it. As we process these things (reason through them), we are influenced by emotion and view things in light of our experience. That's the common human experience.

However, I do believe that if a person lays aside presuppositions and begins to think freely, they will eventually be led to the idea of a greater power, some kind of designer. I don't even mean 'God' at this point, but just the idea that there is something transcendent, something completely other then what we are. At that stage they would not perceive the power as personal, but would at least acknowledge something.

With all due respect, is anyone willing to lay aside their preconceived notions, start over from square one regarding everything they know, feel and have experienced and really think this thing through?

Matt McCormick said...

Jamie, I have no doubt that many, maybe even most people, if they were to let emotion, personal need, and the influence of social experiences hold sway, would arrive at the conclusion that God exists. And that is precisely the problem. Just letting it flow and succumbing to the dangerous and misleading influences of emotion is exactly what everyone should resist because that is a demonstrably bad way to arrive at reasonable, accurate beliefs. Loosen the reins as you are suggesting and people readily slide into theism. It's those irrational impulses that we need to train ourselves to resist.

I find that when I lay aside all my "preconceived notions" as you put it, the idea of God is utterly absurd and childish. I suppose you'll say I didn't lay aside my preconceptions in the right way?

MM

jamie said...

No, I wouldn't say that. I'm talking about this: what if you and I and some others really devoted ourselves to be true observers, true scientists, true reasoners who could lay aside those notions we currently hold and start from nothing. Of course that's not possible because we are who we are - products or genetics and environment - and can't be 100% objective. But if it were possible to lay preconceived ideas aside, and use all our our faculties to observe and draw conclusions based on what we observe of the world, I think God would be proven out.

And I actually didn't say that people should succumb to their emotions. That's dangerous. I think believers in God get into trouble when they only let emotion and experience guide them and set aside critical thinking. And I think atheists get into trouble when they think its possible to figure something out by pure reason. Since the human being is an integrated being and the 'parts' we tend to think of (emotions, reason, etc) cannot be partitioned, so reason will be influenced by the other two.

Do atheists seek pleasure? Do they seek comfort? Do they seek to enjoy life? If so, then wouldn't they too be sliding towards "irrational impulses that we need to train ourselves to resist (your words)". Why not flee from such things as these and train yourself only to reason things out?

So is reason really reliable? What makes the intellect more reliable for dealing with life and figuring things out than emotion or personal experience?

I don't want to be belligerent, and hope I'm not coming across as such. I do enjoy dialogue with people who don't think the way I do.

David B. Ellis said...


Do atheists seek pleasure? Do they seek comfort? Do they seek to enjoy life? If so, then wouldn't they too be sliding towards "irrational impulses that we need to train ourselves to resist (your words)".


No. It would be decidedly irrational to avoid happiness and pleasure.

Rationality does not imply avoiding emotion or pleasure in general. It implies avoiding the tendency for them to play a role in our belief formation processes.

jamie said...

Why would it be irrational to avoid happiness and pleasure? Aren't they feelings? What do they have to do with reason and intellect?

Also, do/ should people form beliefs solely based on their intellect? What good is a belief if it doesn't make you feel anything? If you're not passionate about it, it's worthless. Or what good is belief if it doesn't lead to some kind of fulfilling experiences? That kind of belief leads to boredom.

I think this is one reason why many people stop believing in God - they're fed something that is not appetizing at the core of their being, something that doesn't connect with their day to day life. There's a disconnect which makes God and faith seem irrelevant.

Bryan Goodrich said...

Excellent responses. Now, the second typical response a Christian would propose would be this: but my personal experience (say, they had a vision like so many in the Bible have) proves God to me (and maybe the Bible, too, since if God talks to them personally and tells them the contradictions in the Canon are not really contradictions, he has to be right!). How do you response to personal evidence such as that?

ungullible said...

@jamie - You've said that you believe people would arrive at the conclusion that there is a god if they could lay aside their biases, but you haven't stated why you think that - at least not clearly. What biases are we unbelievers guilty of? Not that we aren't human, but I just don't see a failure of logic here. Can you give me an example or a specific bias you feel we have?

I think that it is biases that lead us towards a belief in a god, not away from it, because there really is no evidence otherwise. I was raised a Christian and went to church regularly, but eventually became an atheist as an adult. There were no traumatic or emotional events that lead to this conclusion. It was a gradual change over many years, and is just where the evidence eventually took me after I did exactly as you suggest and lay aside my biases and preconceptions and just analyzed the evidence.

ungullible said...

I wanted to add that my metamorphosis was not trivial. There are huge emotional barriers to overcome in becoming atheist. There's the fear of being wrong and damning yourself to hell, the fear of what your family and friends will think, etc. I say this because I think it takes some courage and tenacity to overcome these biases and follow the evidence where it takes you. Thus atheism is the result of doing exactly as jamie suggests - overcoming biases.

jamie said...

ungullible - first thanks for your honesty in sharing about your life. any change is traumatic, but especially one that involves changes in your fundamental belief system. i think our society lacks the kind of honesty i read in your post. so thanks again for being transparent.

It does seem to me that you shed your turned your back on one set of biases to embrace another set. Everyone has biases, and not one single person can be 100% objective.

second, i wasn't trying to point out guilt. Atheists are biased against the idea of God. 'Theists' are biased towards the idea. however, I was speaking about all people, not just atheists, but believers in god and those who don't. So if I myself and you and everyone else who's posting here could lay aside all of our preconceived ideas, then spend years and years searching for meaning and truth using reason and research, we would eventually come to the conclusion that there is a god. we might not believe he's personal or that he cares, but I do think reason would bring us to that point.

Here's a hypothetical situation and a good question to think about (I know it has a lot of faults, but just imagine with me) - if a person could grow up in an environment devoid of influence towards any belief system at all, what would they come up with on their own? Would they be atheist? Would they eventually move towards the idea supernatural beings? Would they believe that they themselves were a god? or would the thought even cross their mind? I think that they would be led to think that there is something greater, some higher power. But then again, I am a little biased in my thinking.

David B. Ellis said...


Why would it be irrational to avoid happiness and pleasure? Aren't they feelings? What do they have to do with reason and intellect?


It would be irrational because happiness and pleasure are intrinsically desirable things.

You seem to have this strange idea that reason is opposed to emotion.

It isn't. Emotion is only in conflict with reason if emotion is allowed to influence our belief formation processes.

Otherwise its in no conflict with our rationality.


What good is a belief if it doesn't make you feel anything?


I never said a belief shouldn't make you feel anything. But that feeling should not be allowed to influence one's judgement as to whether the belief is true.

A mundane example: if I believe a girl I have feelings for is in love with me that would, obviously fill me with great pleasure. But the fact it would make me happy has no bearing on whether its true and, therefore, its rational to do our best to disregard how happy it would make us in judging how she feels about us.

We would view a friend that had never spoken to the pretty waitress at the local coffee shop but who is convinced (in the absence of a shred of evidence) that she's madly in love with him to be off his rocker.....and rightly so.


If you're not passionate about it, it's worthless.


Again, not allowing emotion to influence our judgement about a propositions truth or falsity does not mean not having feelings, even strong ones, concerning the proposition (see example above).

It just means we should be all the more careful to think as objectively and rationally as we can when our emotions are strongly engaged.


It does seem to me that you shed your turned your back on one set of biases to embrace another set.


What he did (I did the same) is change my mind despite the strong bias against that change---because that's what my rational faculties were leading me to think.

That can happen. We all see mundane examples of it. John is convinced his wife is loyal (strong bias against the belief she's unfaithful to him). But he walks into the bedroom hearing a crash outside the open window. A set of boxer shorts on the floor that aren't his and his wife in the bed looking very guilty.

Despite his bias, his mind has probably changed---his wife is not loyal.


Atheists are biased against the idea of God.


That depends on what you mean by biased. If being convinced the existence of God is implausible is a "bias", then sure.

I also have a bias against believe in fairies, by that reckoning.

But what we usually mean by bias includes a preference that the belief one is biased toward be true.

For example, I have an emotional bias in favor of extraterrestrial intelligence----I would love for it to exist and for scientists to pick up a radio signal from an alien civilization.

But I see no rational reason to think its likely to ever happen. Even if there is intelligent life out there, it might be so rare as to occur only in one out of a million galaxies---and then we'd probably never hear from them.

One's emotional preferences (biases) do not have to influence one's judgment.


So if I myself and you and everyone else who's posting here could lay aside all of our preconceived ideas, then spend years and years searching for meaning and truth using reason and research, we would eventually come to the conclusion that there is a god.


Many of us atheists actually did that. And concluded that there was no reason to think God a plausible hypothesis (understand, most of us don't rule it out absolutely---I don't believe in werewolves, either, but I'm willing to be convinced if good evidence is put forward).

You can believe us or not.


Here's a hypothetical situation and a good question to think about (I know it has a lot of faults, but just imagine with me) - if a person could grow up in an environment devoid of influence towards any belief system at all.....


I've mulled that particular thought experiment over myself.

To have the person's belief or nonbelief be a rational one, though, we would need to add a modification.

The person must be brought up and trained to be highly rational. To understand and employed critical thinking. To think logically and rationally. To not allow his preferences to skew his judgement.

I doubt such a person would become a theist or supernaturalist (largely because people who make a strong effort to become like that tend to loose their supernaturalist beliefs).

One left to his own devices with no guidance toward thinking rationally might well become a supernaturalist---even without being taught supernaturalism is true.

Which indicates, I think, that humans are prone to jump to the wrong conclusions and often think anthropomorphically.


Would they believe that they themselves were a god? or would the thought even cross their mind?


I hope you're not trying to claim we atheists consider ourselves gods.

David B. Ellis said...


Now, the second typical response a Christian would propose would be this: but my personal experience (say, they had a vision like so many in the Bible have) proves God to me (and maybe the Bible, too, since if God talks to them personally and tells them the contradictions in the Canon are not really contradictions, he has to be right!). How do you response to personal evidence such as that?


I had a long series of email exchanges with the science fiction writer John C. Wright discussing this very topic after he responded to a comment I made on a blog wondering how his conversion to theism (eventually Catholicism, but he hadn't taken that step at the time of our discussion) would influence his writing.

Wright, who had been an atheist, had a heart attack and saw 3 visions during his recovery which convinced him God was talking to him (and, of course, therefore exists).

Basically, he and I discussed the argument from religious experience. Me taking the position that such experiences as his are well accounted for by the hallucination hypothesis and, therefore, poor evidence that theism is true (especially given how mutually contradictory most visions are from one person and one culture to another).

A long debate on the topic ensued with, of course, neither of us being convinced by the other.

jamie said...

david - great answers. i like the way you think. I was definitely NOT saying that atheists think they are gods. i was just trying to come up with a few different scenarios to fit the hypothetical example.

and about the conversation you had with the author, that's a typical result - no real conclusion, just the arrival at an impasse and the other person not being 'converted'.

at the end of the day though, i wish that more atheists would be friends with more believers instead of us constructing barriers. in fact, if anybody lives near Philly, look me up and we'll go out for some beers!

Bryan Goodrich said...

David,

You say, "especially given how mutually contradictory most visions are from one person and one culture to another."

I think we can say we're not making a post hoc fallacy by ascribing the man's visions to his physical trauma (convenient he has the visions when he has a heart attack and at no other time). But that kind of response is not evidence or justified inference against the man's claims from personal experience. EVEN IF one is merely having a hallucination that does not mean he isn't talking to God. Maybe that is the mechanism by which gods communicate to us mortals! It only becomes a counter-claim IF we assume there is no, and cannot be any, connection between hallucinations and communicating with the supernatural. What basis can we make that assumption?

But to get to the quote, you say there are contradictory visions between people and cultures? Many anthropology and philosophy of religion studies demonstrate the exact opposite of that claim. Child and Child's compilation in "Religion and Magic in the Lives of Traditional Peoples" shows many fundamental themes that are amongst cultures when it comes to practices of religion and magic. Mircea Eliade, in numerous text but most notably in The Sacred and the Profane concentrates on the philosophical similarities between numerous cultures throughout time and the symbols that weave themselves throughout. Additionally, we even see in drug culture that many hallucinations are in fact similar. The literature is vast on the similarities, so the generalization about the differences just seems rather misplaced. Of course, one can come up with any underdetermined theory to narrate why these similarities occur, we have a similar physiology that we share and it all expresses itself similarly and we express that similarly in our culture, habits and practices. But such a leap of an inference would be made without evidence if we just threw that narration out because it works (I can just as well say gnomes do it, and it would be as valid!)

Therefore, my question then, is, since your response is typical, what justification is there for excluding a relation between personal experiences (hallucination or not) and religious communications? Additionally, if we accept there is a similarity that weaves itself throughout cultures in regard to religious experiences, how do we disjoin that from anything religious? Since it, too, suffers the same evidential limitations as the first question brings out.

David B. Ellis said...

Bryan, my argument against his claim is very simple.

There is no evidence within the content of his experience which makes it more likely than not to be from God rather than from his own psyche.

Therefore, it doesn't constitute evidence God exists.


But that kind of response is not evidence or justified inference against the man's claims from personal experience.


My argument was not that his experience must be hallucination.

It was that its just as likely to be hallucination (even without the fact that religious experiences are usually mutually contradictory). If this is the case then the experience doesn't provide any evidence whatsoever that God exists (even for the person having the experience, if they are evaluating the experience rationally, which, however, they're usually not).


But to get to the quote, you say there are contradictory visions between people and cultures? Many anthropology and philosophy of religion studies demonstrate the exact opposite of that claim. Child and Child's compilation in "Religion and Magic in the Lives of Traditional Peoples" shows many fundamental themes that are amongst cultures when it comes to practices of religion and magic.


Having common elements doesn't make two visions noncontradictory.


An ancient Greek sees a vision in which he appears before the throne of Zeus, king of the gods, with all the other gods around him.

An ancient Hebrew sees a vision in which he appears before the throne of God and is told there is but one God and all other "gods" are but false idols.

Whatever similarities there may be between religious visions they are still in great disagreement---they cannot both be accurate visions of the nature of the supernatural being or beings ruling the universe (if any do).




Therefore, my question then, is, since your response is typical, what justification is there for excluding a relation between personal experiences (hallucination or not) and religious communications?


I never excluded the possibility that the visions are real. I simply pointed out that they are as well, at least, accounted for by the hallucination hypothesis as the divine communication hypothesis. And thats all that is necessary to defeat the argument from religious experience.

For the hallucination hypothesis to be ruled out, all that is necessary is for the vision to provide information the person could not have had and which is verifiable later.

But the beings appearing in visions never seem to provide that.

David B. Ellis said...

And by hallucination here I am referring to an experience coming ONLY from the believers psyche.

David B. Ellis said...


Additionally, if we accept there is a similarity that weaves itself throughout cultures in regard to religious experiences, how do we disjoin that from anything religious?


Why would I try to "disjoin that from anything religious"?

Obviously, its religious. That doesn't mean it isn't a figment of the human imagination and psyche though.

And nothing about the similarities among religious visions and myths (I'm a lifelong student of mythology so I'm, of course, aware of the common themes running through the religions, religious vision, dreams, alchemy and, for that matter, the experiences of schizophrenics) makes it any more likely that they have a divine source than a purely psychological one.

Understand that I am not trying to prove the psychological hypothesis. Merely pointing out it at least as good an explanation for the data in question. Therefore the argument from religious experience fails.

Bryan Goodrich said...

David,

I'm not literally caricaturing your argument, but let me pose your response this way.

Contrary to what physicists think, the sun is really not a hot ball of plasma constantly burning hydrogen in its core. It is really just a workshop of magical elves from another dimension and that is like their "smoke stack" of their workshop. Hell, maybe the work for the great Santa Clause.

Now, this elf theory explains the data just as well as the physicist's theory explains the data. So do we not just say they both are wrong or at least, in this case, the scientist is wrong?

Of course, science has much more going for it that I will not get into here, but your argument by appealing to alternative theories is essentially the same. You admit that you are not trying to prove the one, only that the other is underdetermined by it. But I believe it was Quine who asserted all theories are underdetermined (I don't agree to that extent). I find two problems with this approach.

First of all, simply demonstrating an alternative theory, even if it has some metaphysical or epistemological support behind it the other might lack (though, the religious experience isn't devoid of its metaphysical and epistemological theories, either) does not demonstrate failure in either of them. In fact, we would have to say both the religious and psychological explanation are equally unacceptable.

Secondly, you admit that you do not prove the hallucination is correct. In fact, you cannot (would be kind of impossible to perform a historical experiment of such). If that is the case, they are both equally worthless.

But I do get your point, if one assents to either of them, they can just as well assent to the other. But that is not a counter-argument. That's like saying we have two theories for how a certain valley formed. Simply because we have two equilikely theories that explain the event does not mean we dismiss one or both of them. In fact, in science, we would assert them both as being the claims to appeal to, but only inasmuch as we recognize the alternative.

Now, does the religious person do this? Yes, sometimes they do. Some will assent to the fact it might have all just been "in their head" but that doesn't remove them from assenting to that belief. A clear reason for that would probably be the fact personal experience has a greater prominence compared to something detached from them, and without outside evidence, to the person, the personal interpretation dominates.

The whole point of this challenge was how do we evaluate personal evidence/experience. You say if a person is rational they should drop the religious experience as evidence because it is just as likely to be a hallucination, regardless if you can validate the hallucination argument or not. But that kind of argument would be like a scientist saying another's theory for the valley formation is just wrong, regardless if he can point out his theory is more accurate, or like someone posing another theory, like the elf theory of suns, simply to demonstrate the underdetermined nature of one's narrative of their experience. You say that these are essentially enough to defeat the argument. How? Does the scientists rejection of one theory for the other defeat the other? Does an elf theory of suns conceived defeat the physicists theory? The latter is clearly absurd, and the scientist wouldn't be practicing science at all. Yet you throw the same kind of refutation to religious experience as if you actually defeated the argument. It looks more like hand-waving to me.

Note, it is one thing to say the argument is just weak, untenable and not applicable to anything beyond the person, and another to say it is wrong and defeated because of ... You have taken the latter position saying you basically have a counterargument. It isn't (unless we also accept the absurd and unscientific examples I provided, as well). What you have adequately provided is justified reasons for anyone else to not assent to the person's belief. What I am after, however, is an actual counterargument. How do we demonstrate that it is unreasonable for the person experiencing it not to believe what they believe.

Don't take my direction here in the converse, however. I am saying having good reason for the non-experienced to not assent to X is not proof against the experienced to not assent to X, but that doesn't imply the experienced person's assent to X is good enough reason for anyone else to assent to X. In fact, that kind of claim would not make sense at all (i.e., it's like saying "I experienced X so you, too, should believe in what I say" yeah, right!

But I bring that up because it is critical here. It is one thing for someone to believe X and another for him to claim you should believe X. Likewise, it is two different things to say we should not believe in X, and that some person who experienced X should not believe in it. Why? Because evidence is not homogeneous. It would seem rather odd to say we only have one kind of evidence and it is universal across the board, and that any rational person who assents to any argument must be using this standard evidence to get to that claim, and anyone not with it is wrong (that just comes off as epistemic bigotry, really; unfortunately, I have met a few people who do follow those kinds of notions. They are easily dismissed). If we recognize that evidence comes in many shapes and forms, then we have to identify the kind of evidence in use by the experienced to claim their assent to their belief, because it is different from, say, the evidence of proving how solar mechanics work.

S D Owen said...

(Playing devil's advocate as usual.)

So what forces one to privilege logic over faith?

It seems to be purely pragmatic. We atheists think that logic is more beneficial than faith. I think that's good justification, but the other side can make the same argument.

There doesn't seem to be anything ontological that the believer or non-believer can point to as justification for their center.

Thus, if it is the case that there is no foundational support for either faith or logic, then we merely have an arbitrary battle of "absolutes."

Thoughts?

Ungullible said...

jamie said "if a person could grow up in an environment devoid of influence towards any belief system at all, what would they come up with on their own? Would they be atheist? Would they eventually move towards the idea supernatural beings? Would they believe that they themselves were a god? or would the thought even cross their mind? I think that they would be led to think that there is something greater, some higher power."

Jamie, I agree with your assumption that such a person would likely come to believe in some sort of supernatural being, but I reject your conclusion that this would be evidence for such a being.

I think this is just evidence that human thinking, on it's own and without the assistance of the scientific process, is inherently flawed. Another way to put it is that I believe that people have inherent biases which do not have to be learned, but have simply been handed to us from evolution.

For example, Michael Shermer has theorized that when it comes to humans noticing cause and effect relationships, believing in false-positives (e.g. dancing and praying to the rain gods causes rain) is less costly to the species than not believing in real relationships (e.g. watering and fertilizing helps our crops). As a result we are wired to err on the side of believing some cause and effect relationships that simply aren't true. We are genetically gullible.

That is just one of many examples. Humans are guilty of so many kinds of poor logic that scientists and philosophers have categorized and studied them to help us recognize and avoid them. Your hypothetical man raised in isolation from others would not benefit from this knowledge and so, while avoiding learned biases, would still be victim to his own "genetic" biases.

Basically I believe that science is currently the best and perhaps the only tool capable of helping man overcome his inherent biases and flawed logic. You may argue, as some have tried, that science is just another kind of bias no better than any other belief system. I fundamentally and most strongly disagree, because science has a track record of progress that no other belief system can come close too. Science is a tool for removing biases, not a bias itself.

S D Owen said...

One would not think of a greater power than themselves unless their environment taught them such a concept (tribalism, theism, capitalism).

Ideas come from experience -- they are not innate -- they are culturally based.

Imagine if children were brought up in a classless society where everyone shared power.

Imagine if they were taught it was wrong for any one entity to wield authoritarian power over another.

Then the "natural" belief would be in ontological equality between beings -- no distinction of value between the subject and the other.

There would not be an ontological hierarchy as we have now -- a false "natural" belief created by the culture we live in.

Children, for example, have to learn to distinguish themselves from their mother's body, the environment around them -- they perceive the world in wholeness.

It is only after cultural training that we begin to see differences in the world -- differences based off of our cultural milieu.

Therefore, if the cultural milieu was non-hierarchal, egalitarian in form, it would not be "natural" for children to form ideas about a "greater" authoritarian being.

They would understand authority, to be sure, if it was taught, but authority following from the principle of equality, not a greater being.

--SDO

Jon said...

They them may have a concept of many lesser but equal gods.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Now, this elf theory explains the data just as well as the physicist's theory explains the data.

No it doesn't. There's that pesky "evidence" thing.

As for personal experiences, a sizable number of people believe, with all apparent sincerity, that they have been abducted by aliens, taken aboard spaceships and probed sexually. Are their personal experiences more or less likely than personal religious experiences? Why is it that people who have personal religious experiences generally see imagery associated with their prior religious environment? Why didn't the author who had the heart attack see Odin or Krishna instead of Yahweh, while people in Hindu culture see their own religious imagery?

We know that hallucinations and delusions occur. No one would contest that. We do NOT know that Yahweh/Krishna/Odin/Flying Spaghetti Monster exist, let alone that they communicate with people through hallucinations.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Here's a hypothetical situation and a good question to think about (I know it has a lot of faults, but just imagine with me) - if a person could grow up in an environment devoid of influence towards any belief system at all, what would they come up with on their own? Would they be atheist? Would they eventually move towards the idea supernatural beings? Would they believe that they themselves were a god? or would the thought even cross their mind? I think that they would be led to think that there is something greater, some higher power. But then again, I am a little biased in my thinking.

There are some unspecified points which might greatly impact the outcome. Would this person be educated as to scientific explanations for natural phenomena? If not, he might grow up to credit supernatural intervention for rain, thunder, the appearance of wild animals, meteors, etc. The potential result of such an experiment is tabulated in books like this: Encyclopedia of Gods

I think that they would be led to think that there is something greater...

"Led to" by what? You specified "an environment devoid of influence towards any belief system at all." You seem to contradict yourself. No influence = no leading.

Suppose you put many people through such an experiment, do you think those who tended towards supernatural entities would come up with the same gods? History indicates otherwise.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Thus, if it is the case that there is no foundational support for either faith or logic, then we merely have an arbitrary battle of "absolutes."

Thoughts?


Reason (logic + science) gets results. We have lasers, semiconductors, nuclear reactors, antibiotics, organ transplants, vaccines, etc. etc. etc. and we didn't get them by having faith.

Bryan Goodrich said...

reginald

No it doesn't. There's that pesky "evidence" thing.

The evidence is the same. Neither the elf-scientist or the physicist has first-hand experience with the center of the star. We infer its mechanics based on the evidence, the larger body of scientific knowledge and theory. Where the elf-scientist fails is that it has no coherence with the larger body of knowledge. It is isolated, unique, and particularly contrary to our knowledge. But that is not the standard of evaluation presented here and that is what I was getting at. Evidence alone is useless for theoretical considerations because theories will be underdetermined by that standard. We need systematically look beyond evidence. So to be clear, both theories rely on the same evidence. The inference is that what the evidence suggests in, in the one case, solar mechanics as we know them, and in the other case, elf mechanics as conceived. They both equally express the evidence, but it takes higher-order standards to evaluate those explanations because first-order data (i.e., evidence) provides nothing for that critique.

As for alien abductees, they are in the same boat as those with some religious experience. The same fundamental element of personal experience (personal evidence, if you will) remains a point of contention since evidence alone does not provide an evaluative basis for higher-order inferences (viz. theories).

More to the point, you say we don't know that those Gods you listed exist, but we do know people have hallucinations. Well, just like no one knows if the mind (independently) exists, you will not give a reasonable objection to it by appealing to mere evidence as people have done here in regard to religious experiences and beliefs.

I'm not saying there is a good or strong point the religious person has. My point is to demonstrate two things:

(1) Personal experience keeps us epistemically weak, both for the religious person who appeals to his small sample to infer something about God, and to the atheist who appeals to evidence as a standard against general theories about, say, God. In short, it permits healthy skepticism to exist.

(2) To point out that for anyone to take a stronger stance against the religious person, these weak arguments appealing to evidence will not suffice, because of (1). To be brief, a decision-theoretical approach to choosing epistemic norms and standards to keep our epistemology, say, robust (always important, to me at least) requires us to consider higher-order bases of evaluation that first-order evidence fails to provide. Instead, as I expressed here, you criticize the elf theory of stars because it makes no sense, not of the evidence, but of the larger system of knowledge it belongs to. We don't find concepts of independent minds or Gods lacking rational acceptance because there's no evidence (do not make arguments from ignorance) or because we don't agree or find weak the theories based on, say, personal evidence, but because the consequence of those beliefs run contrary to our general knowledge; or, maybe, because it weakens, say, robustness (there's many angles one can take from this kind of argument).

Furthermore, appeal to the last comment you left about what Reason(logic+science) brings us is another contentious standard to appeal to, which I've heard Christians throw at me in one or another form (including negatively). We wouldn't say, e.g., that science isn't science if it doesn't produce technology. That would be absurd (an argument I have heard about how to classify something as science or not). Christians make a similar appeal in that "we wouldn't have the economy we have today if it wasn't for Christianity in the Middle Ages.." or the negative position "at least Christians don't do ..." I would call these consequential arguments or standards because they appeal to outcomes (either past, expected or otherwise). They are lousy positions to argue from and anyone can really use them. They provide nothing to the quality of the discussion. I have written more about the problems with consequentialism here

Matt McCormick said...

Bryan, this is a really nice comment. If you'd be willing to dress it up a bit, make it stand alone, I'd like to post in on the main page as a special guest blog.

I only have time to add a couple of brief ideas. It's interesting to list the various criteria by which we might judge the adequacy of these second order epistemic norms you're mentioning. Atheists are fond of saying, "There's no evidence!!" But as you say, that's a mistake. What counts as evidence, how it counts, and what hypotheses it confirms or disconfirms ultimately is a function of these second order norms. Evidence is not an independent, objective phenomena, but a relation between subject and environment. And the criteria by which we can judge some epistemic norms to be better than other, and ultimately judge the truth better or worse by them, are factors like logical coherence, probabilistic coherence, internal adequacy, ability to explain all the available evidence, fit with other kinds of experience and phenomena we observe, and so on. My Coherence and Atheism post is relevant:
http://atheismblog.blogspot.com/2007/09/coherence-and-atheism.html

Again, thanks, and think about making this stand alone for an entry.

MM

Matt McCormick said...

David Ellis, Reginald Selkirk, Bryan Goodrich:

I am preparing to teach my Atheism Seminar this fall at CSUS. I'm going to have my students interacting on a Wikispaces message board. It'll have a password and approved membership. It would be cool if you guys wanted to participate, at your leisure, in those discussions.

MM

Bryan Goodrich said...

I will consider it Matt, as long as I can post it on my blog and you link it to there, as well. I am extremely busy as of late, and right now am in a writing rut of sorts (thinking of laying off writing for awhile and focusing on reading massive amounts). Maybe I'll use it as an outline to give me something to write for the Fall writing contest, since I can't think of what I want to write on and just don't have time to finish the research project I was working on at the start of summer. I will let you know what's up.

Reginald Selkirk said...

I would call these consequential arguments or standards because they appeal to outcomes (either past, expected or otherwise).

I wouldn't use that term, because it sounds too similar to "argument from consequences," which it is not. It is an argument from results, with the achievement of results being an indicator of the ability to both explain and predict reality.

Bryan Goodrich said...

Reg,

Same thing. Evaluating "results" is identical to evaluating "consequences." The problems that arise in consequences are in the results, since results are a kind of consequences. How you can evaluate them to be indicators still needs to be said, which is essentially my point in bringing up the fact we need something more than mere evidence (and their results) to do that. It requires a higher-order standard of analysis, a meta-theory of evidence (and results), if you will.

Reginald Selkirk said...

"approved membership"

Reminds me of a line by Groucho Marx.

R.C. said...

I am not trying to criticise any of you, but it is clear you have not look at the main Christian views concerning logic and God. I recommend Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til. Personally, I believe logic like everything else was created by God and derives from his divine nature. However, there are other Christian's that believe logic is an attribute of God's nature like Clark and John Frame.

r.c. said...

I stated God created logic, so the objection would be raised, so God is irrational? I would respond by saying absolutely not!!! Logic is created by God and is a reflection of his character and nature.

If God does not use logic then how does he make distinctions? We must understand God does not think in terms of premises and conclusions clearly the Bible demonstrates this because he knows all things. God made everything and sustains it. Truth is whatever corresponds to the mind of God.

Matt McCormick said...

That's a nice tight little circle you've got going there R.C. God creates logic, and truth is whatever is in the mind of God. How do I know? God said so in the Bible. How do I know that what the Bible says is true? Truth is whatever comes from the mind of God.

How about some independent grounds for thinking any of these baffling claims are true?

MM