Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Private, Unassailable Knowledge of God

The Reformed Epistemology movement has constructed an elaborate explanation of how they think God beliefs are justified. In short, RE believers claim to have a direct immediate access to God through a witness of the holy spirit, religious experience, or sensus divinitatus. What’s important about this new source of knowledge is that it is private, it cannot be refuted by any contrary evidence, indeed, it rejects evidence altogether. This path to God is direct and veridical—without mistakes or confusions.

Here it is in William Lane Craig’s words:

Plantinga's model involves crucially what is usually called the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. In his model the Holy Spirit functions on the analogy of a cognitive faculty, producing beliefs in us. I myself prefer to think of the Spirit's witness either as a form of literal testimony or else as part of the experiential circumstances which serve to ground belief in God and the great truths of the Gospel. In either case His deliverances are properly basic. By that I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it; that such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; that such experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself; that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths of the Christian religion, such as "God exists," "I am condemned by God," "I am reconciled to God," "Christ lives in me," and so forth; that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity's truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him who attends fully to it.

After they argued that classical foundationalism was dead because it couldn’t how its basic principles were known: “Only those beliefs that we apprehend clearly and distinctly are true.” itself was challenged. Is knowing that principle itself something we apprehend clearly and distinctly? Or through justification? The idea behind RE was that we could apprehend more things directly and know them than just Descartes list of internal thoughts. When I see a flower, I am immediately aware of its title, and of its beauty. When it appears to me that the person I am talking to is angry, that’s something I know without any inference or reasoning. I know it directly and immediately.

How is it that they come to the confident conclusion that the deliverances of the holy spirit are veridical, objective knowledge? Because of features of the experiences themselves. The testimony of the Holy Spirit confronts them directly and does not misled them, they say. And the experience itself is so powerful, it eclipses whatever power to raise doubts some other ideas might have had. This internal source of knowledge of God gives the believer perfect assurance that any possible defeater that comes up is mistaken.

The RE development represents a retreat away from classic attempts to prove God’s existence on independent, non-circular, inter-subjectively verifiable grounds. The Holy Spirit has given this Christian the perfect answer to everything. The voices are internal and private. But what they instruct is without any doubt because the feelings are intense and authentic and unmistakable feeling. And the feelings give me perfect unassailable assurance that no matter what sort of counter evidence I encounter, it must be wrong. I have an internal, self-authenticating source of knowledge that cannot be mistaken.

There are a lot of objections to make to this sort of view. First, presumably even the RE adherent would admit that not all of the strong, passionate feelings like this that people have are authentic, even some of the ones where the subject is convinced that the experience is real, veridical, and religiously significant. They must be willing to admit that there are some false religious experiences that feel similarly compelling. If not, then they’d have to accept that all of the powerful, spiritual experiences that people have had count equally as objective knowledge. The problem is that too many people have had too many experiences like this that produce beliefs that are blatantly contradictory. They can’t all be correct. And surely the RE advocate wants to have some ground from which to argue that the Zoroastrians and the Palugans are wrong when they directly experience their gods. So the question is how does one tell the difference between the authentic visions and the bogus ones? Especially if the bogus ones are insisting that there’s are authentic just as vigorously.

Second, how can any mere feeling inside one’s own head be sufficient to give you a defeater for any possible counter evidence that comes along? Mere feelings in the head that are not manifest as objects in the world are notoriously subjective and unreliable. You can’t trust your strong feelings to tell you the truth about the world. And the only way we’ve ever had to check those feelings is to go look and confirm or disconfirm whether it was there. Cross-checking outside the voices in the my head, especially with other observers are the only or at least the best method we’ve ever had for separating the true from the false. It’s patently contrary to a thousand lessons every one of us has learned the hard way in our daily lives where the thing that felt sooo right in our minds turned out to be completely off the mark.

Third, consider the bigger picture here. There are millions of Christians and born-again evangelical Christians in the United States who wield enormous political, social, and economic power. They battle to set our school agendas, they put politicians into office, they vote for social agendas, and they propagate their ideas to the next generation of Americans. And here we are being told that ultimately the source of justification they have for their entire ideology is a set of intense, undeniable feelings they have in their minds. Furthermore, these ideas cannot be challenged (or even experienced) by anyone on the outside. In principle, they cannot be defeated because the feelings themselves inform the feeler that nothing else is so true or trustworthy.

The problem, obviously, is that the ideology has co-opted the RE’s capacity to think straight. Their dedication to the ideology has eclipsed all other concerns, even the person’s capacity to reason. Once someone is this far gone, the rest of us can only hope that the voices in their heads don’t start telling them to strap on a dynamite backpack or try to hasten the apocalypse by instigating World War 3.


Anonymous said...

great points. The 'herd' religous mentality is somthing to be concered about and even feared.

Brigitte said...

"The problem, obviously, is that the ideology has co-opted the RE’s capacity to think straight. Their dedication to the ideology has eclipsed all other concerns, even the person’s capacity to reason. Once someone is this far gone, the rest of us can only hope that the voices in their heads don’t start telling them to strap on a dynamite backpack or try to hasten the apocalypse by instigating World War 3"

There is some truth to this. In America there seem to be more wacko people than other places: killing people in Walmart stampedes, St. Claus shooting people to death, etc. We watch this and think: only in the United States of America.

Also, there are plenty of Christians in America and other places who watch the televangelists and charlatans with great horror and disgust. A lot of this needs reigning in.

Also, a purely subjective religion is indeed stupid. It is dumb to be told by someone that your faith is purely "intellectual". In fact, man is a complete being: intellect and subject belong together. Yet, people have varying degrees of one and the other and some have limited capacity and that's ok, too.

Yet, it is somewhat hysterical (by you) to keep warning about people starting WW 3, as you can see nobody has done it yet, and most likely WW 3 will start in India/Pakistan (see Gwen Dyer). Ezra Levant, (see his blog from my blog, or google him), a Canadian Jew, who keeps getting hauled in front of the Canadian Human Rights commission for insulting Islam, has pointed out, no matter how much some Muslims complain about blasphemy committed, supposedly, by other groups (Levant calls this: soft Jihad), in actual reality, violence has been committed against his synagogue in Edmonton, and nothing against Muslims. It is just a lot of noise.

Teleprompter said...

I know of no good way to refute RE, to a point.

If someone says "I have private knowledge which can never be questioned", what is one going to say in response?

I was discussing atheism/theism with a friend of mine, and he stops the conversation and tells me (this is a paraphrase): "A friend of mine told me they saw an angel. They couldn't tell me more about it, but it was someone I trust implicitly, and I know they'd never tell me something that wasn't true. In light of that, even though I do have some of the same questions, I find it hard to doubt".

Isn't that the essence of RE? I know something, and even though you don't, go ahead and trust me? One possible answers is that people from many belief systems have RE experiences, and we know some of the things that cause these experiences to occur. However, it's awfully difficult to articulate this as a response.

"Yes, I have private knowledge."
"No, I don't think you do."

That may not go over so well, no?

Matt McCormick said...

Very nice point, Piano. Right to the center of it.

I think that one response has got to be that we insist on making this distinction. We've all been clear since Plato (Gettier aside) that in order to have knowledge that some proposition p, she must have a justified, true belief that p. If you see what you take to be an angel, you might come to believe "Angels exist." (Although I will argue that people's introspective reports of what they believe are significantly unreliable.) But the RE can't just declare this to be knowledge on the basis that it feels really, really intense or seems veridical. Whether or not it is true that angels exist is still an open question. And even worse, having these private feelings that cannot be subjected to any sort of cross checking, corroboration or falsification does not constitute justification. (Plantinga's got a very fancy, long winded, and ultimately bogus answer to that problem.) So the person you're talking to is far from having knowledge. He hasn't met 2 of the 3 necessary conditions of knowledge. We've got to be vigilant about the sneaky slip they're making from talking about having an experience that they believe was of angels or God, and then calling that knowledge.


Anonymous said...

RE may be crap, and irrational, but we need to remember that the belief in rationaliy is itself not rational. If A is better than B and
B is better than C, then A is better than C. But how do you decide if A is better than B.

There are many ways for someone to reach the stage where they "strap on a backpack". Some have reasoned there way there, others have accepted anothers view that it is the right thing to do, and still others are following their own inner voice.

What weight should a person give to his own experiences and convictions?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Matt.

I really have to say, when it comes to stupid kinds of inferences or arguments, which is really what drives me to debate anyone, this private knowledge claim some people (religious or not) are willing to retreat to demonstrates a complete apathy when it comes to any kind of intellectual thought. Two things you say about it come to mind.

You mention,

How is it that they come to the confident conclusion that the deliverances of the holy spirit are veridical, objective knowledge? Because of features of the experiences themselves. (emphasis added)

Notice that the justification comes from outside of the argument itself. The argument is like that of some Platonic intuition, which just comes as justified in itself. Unlike intuition of that sort, which is true of its own accord, the real justification of why this "Spirit intuition" is correct is not because of the Spirit.

To make that more clear, it is the like the difference between saying

(i) (God is real) is correct because God tells me so, and

(ii) (God is real is correct) because God tells me so.

To make it more symbolic: "X is true because of Y" versus "(X is true) is true because of Y"

If the Holy Spirit were the justification for why the Holy Spirit saying God is real were the case, we'd be appealing to statement (ii). However, as your quote alludes to, we are dealing with (i). They look the same, but the reason those who accept the Holy Spirit as justification enough for their belief stems not from the Holy Spirit. We might, then, add to (i) to make it say:

[(God is real) is correct because of the Holy Spirit] because of the experiences.

But what does this tell us? It tells us that we are making an empirical claim about our experiences about the force of the Holy Spirit that are "good enough" justification, which come as immediately correct. These experiences really must lead us to one of who exclusive ontological choices. Either monism or dualism.

The religious person accepting this private knowledge argument will have to reject monism if there is to be anything "special" about the Holy Spirit which makes it stand apart from other kinds of scrutiny (and evidence). If we accepted monism, then the experiences regarding the Spirit will be under the same kind of (naturalist) empirical scrutiny we give anything in science. The experiences we be of the same "kind" or "sort" that all other experiences and empirical claims are. If that is the case, then one needs to offer more justification, with an almost scientific framework, to say how it is that the Spirit is so "veridical and unmistakable." I would say such an argument is next to impossible and will never come about, and it completely weakens the use of the Spirit. Therefore, monism will have to be rejected.

Since the (only?) other alternative will be to embrace a dualism which makes the experiences regarding the Holy Spirit manifestly different from the rest of our experiences of the world, it comes as self-assuring that anyone accepting this "private knowledge" argument will not be swayed by any evidence. It isn't so much that they will say "my 'proof' of God is immediately true and apparent because of Him." That is just a feature of the "Spirit experiences." But what separates those "Spirit experiences" from the rest of our empirical knowledge is the implicit ontological acceptance that "These experiences are characteristically different from every other natural experience."

You also add in, Matt, that,

Mere feelings in the head that are not manifest as objects in the world are notoriously subjective and unreliable.

I don't think it is as simple as just being subjective and unreliable. One can easily argue that we might have a completely reliable private knowledge in some conceivable world, and being subjective is far from making the information worthless; e.g., I might have mere subjective reasons and feelings why not to go down some dark ally in the city, and it might be a reliable way to save my skin, so to speak, but it doesn't manifest anything objective about why my behind is still intact (one can obviously argue counterfactual problems with our lack of knowledge here, but ignoring that for the moment). Does this subjective and possibly reliable feeling come as problematic, which appears implied in your statement? I would say no.

The real ontological issue is that they are not just missing the objective. Hell, they are technically missing the subjective, too (though, any kind of argument for it will unmistakably aim at its qualification over any objective criteria). The reason is, as I argued above, they must be accepting that we have two manifestly different worlds we are dealing with. What is "objective" in your natural world is not the "objective" of their (I would argue wholly exclusive) God world, which is full of spirits, angels, souls and what not.

To end this here, I will simply say that I would accept, and argue on another day, the bold claim that all forms of dualism are not only incompatible with naturalism, but all forms of dualism are wrong. Dualism is an unjustified metaphysics of the reality we live in, and even if there were such a dualist reality some skeptic might claim, such that we live in The Matrix, then we still have no justifiable or ontologically necessary reason to bring up the alternative from the "Matrix reality" we do live in and validate. They are still mutually exclusive.

Therefore, anyone accepting this Reformed Epistemology where private knowledge, especially of the sort indicative of absolute certainty coming as intuitively and immediately correct by the mere force of the Holy Spirit, requires that the person also accept metaphysical dualism and view the world wholly different from any kind of counter evidence we might even appeal to. They simply will not have an accurate perception of the world; to make any argument, the person accepting RE must first justify their dualist presumptions or show how we can have one reality with two very different empirical justifications for one kind of (ontological) experience.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading Plantinga's "Warranted Christian Belief", and I think he is approaching the subject from a different angle than Craig.

Plantinga does not set RE forward as an "argument" for religious belief. The point is that if Christianity is true, then something very much like the Sensus Divinatatus will be true. Plantinga was defending the Christian against the de jure objection to religous belief, but he admits that if the de facto objection holds, then religious belief does not have warrant. On the other hand, if religious belief is true, it most likely has warrant (in Plantinga's externalist account).

Plantinga also thinks that arguments for God's existence are valuable, and valid.

An example of his use of argument is his development of an argument that seeks to show naturalism is self-referentially incoherent.

Matt McCormick said...

I think this is more or less right, Reformed Baptist. Thanks. I shouldn't run Craig and Plantinga together. P is definitely more restrained about 1) the evidentialist force of the sensus divinitatus and 2) the strong conclusion that objective, veridical knowledge is produced.


Vera Keil said...

Bravo! I am someone who regards her inner spiritual experience as just that--an inner experience. I have come to the conclusion that to expect anyone else to give any validity to it would be absurd and abusive.

That's why I regard all organized religions (and especially the variety in political power today in the U.S.) as ipso facto absurd and abusive.