Thursday, January 7, 2010

Vetting Supernatural Knowledge Claims

I frequently get accused of making the mistake of narrow mindedly demanding empirical proof for things that are not empirical, tangible evidence for the intangible, or applying scientific standards of proof to all knowledge claims when not all knowledge is empirical or scientific.

This sort of comment is typical:

“It always amazes me when materialists clamor for proof regarding spiritual realities in no other than material form. It would be like me asking a physicist for the introspective insight that proves gravity; a plainly ridiculous request. "Spiritual" reality is no misnomer; it is called such precisely because it is spiritual, not material. The distinction here is very real. The means to acquire material knowledge of the cosmos is not the same as one employs to discover spiritual truth. You will never receive a handful of spirit to examine under a microscope, gaze at God through a telescope, or discover a soul on an operating table. The path to spiritual insight will never be found on the outside; it is and will always remain an inner discovery.”

Atheists should reject the switcheroo that is being foisted on them here. Atheists and non-believers should refuse to accept this changing of the topic from "what are the reasons we have for thinking that there is a supernatural being that exists?" to "science and empiricism aren't the only paths to knowledge." First, atheism is not materialism, naturalism, or scientism. At a minimum, the atheist merely denies that there is sufficient justification to believe that “God exists,” is true. In its stronger form, atheism is the view that it is more reasonable to believe that there is no God than to believe or be agnostic. That, in itself, implies or requires no further commitment about the totality of nature. The atheist need not defend an ontological naturalism that insists that no supernatural beings whatsoever exist, although many of us think that is the most reasonable view too. The alleged failings of science, or of materialism are irrelevant to the central question: do we have good reasons to think that God is real?

In looking for an answer to this question, the atheist does not need to insist, at least in principle, that the only way to acquire knowledge of the world is by empirical or scientific means. We can grant that this supernatural, subjective, or non-empirical knowledge is possible. A lot of things are possible, and we’d be foolish to try to argue for their impossibility on the basis of insufficient information.

The problem comes in trying to find some justifying grounds in these so-called internal methods for learning about God. We can allow that it might be possible to acquire some access to another reality or to God through some internal, subjective, personal, or conceptual methods. That’s what many mathematicians believe they are doing when they reason a priori from definitions and axioms to theorems that have sweeping application in the conceptual world of numbers. But what we cannot accept are just any old deliverances of these internal sources without any scrutiny. The other extreme position from a radical empiricism or scientism is having a complete gullibility about these subjective, internal feelings and apply no criteria to them to separate the legitimate from the bogus.

We’ve known since Socrates that in order to have knowledge, a person must have a justified, true belief (Gettier problem notwithstanding). That is, a person does not know something unless first, she believes it, second, it actually is true, and third, she is justified in believing it—she can’t just pull it out of nowhere. And the justification criteria is where these supernatural knowledge accounts invariably fail. In order for a method for producing claims about reality (empirical or supernatural) to be trusted, it has to be reliable. The method must be one that works—that successfully produces true claims about the world. If the method you are using actually produces more false claims than true ones, then we can hardly trust its deliverances. In fact, if it has this sort of track record, like Astrology, or palm reading, or prescient dreams do, then the fact that you arrived at the conclusion by way of that method actually tells us that it is more likely to be false than true. That can hardly be called knowledge. But if the method works—if there’s someone who can gaze into her crystal ball, or read tea leaves, and she can reliably make predictions about the stock market, or find murder victims, or divine tomorrow’s winning lottery numbers—then it’s reliable. And that track record gives us good reason to trust the method and the next deliverance that it produces. Someone may protest that these examples still come down to empirical confirmation. Reliability and the need for some method of discrimination in our methods are not confined to science or the empirical realm, however. If a mathematician can go into a trance and draw out the answers to complicated unsolved problems in the discipline through some mysterious act of divination, we can’t reject that approach outright. The proof is all in whether or not the method works. If her solution to Fermat’s last theorem, or Goldblatt’s conjecture, or whatever, works, and we can check it against some other standard, then she’s building a case for the reliability of her method. And the better the reliability, the more justification it will provide. Then, if the method indicates that the claim is more likely to be true than not, we’re on our way to having knowledge.

So if the theist has another method for learning about the reality of God, we’re prepared in principle to accept that. First issue: if it is not something publicly tangible that can be experienced by the rest of us, what is that method? Is it a voice in your head? A strong feeling? A powerful sense of presence? An overwhelming awareness of a transcendental reality? Something ineffable? Do you come by that knowledge by praying? By thinking? By talking to yourself? Do these ideas come to you when you get yourself into an altered state by fasting? Hallucinogenic drugs? Chanting or meditating? Does it feel like what you figure being overcome by the Holy Spirit must feel like? Do you spin for hours until your consciousness is altered?

Second issue: What are the criteria that you are employing to determine the reliability of this method to acquire supernatural knowledge? How can we tell when the voices or the feelings are lies?

The problem is that we all know that lots of people have lots of these types of experiences that are, for lack of a better word, false. In the course of human history, billions of people have heard voices, felt presences, or divined ideas that just weren’t real. Even the most enthusiastic advocate for internal, supernatural knowledge has to concede that in a lot of cases when people have these experiences, they are bogus. If the Christian advocates this route to knowledge of the Christian God, then he has to conclude that the thousands of non-Christian sects and billions of non-Christians who used that very same method but got different results were mistaken. So just like any other method for justifying a claim, including scientific ones, there must be some way to separate the authentic deliverances of this inner sense from the mistaken ones. What are those distinguishing marks that would allow us to determine the reliability of the method?

Please don’t say that they can only be known privately inside your head too. It can’t be that we (on the outside) can know that your method is reliable because it really, really feels reliable to you. That amounts to a circular proving of the method with the method. Besides, the Sufi mystic, or the Hindu seer both say exactly the same thing about their method for finding (different) ultimate truths about reality. It can’t be the voices in your head that confirm the reliability of the voices in your head, and the feelings of the Holy Spirit can’t establish the reliability of what appear to be the feelings of the Holy Spirit.

What some authors like William Alston and Alvin Plantinga have conceded that person should seek out confirmation of their method outside of their own minds. Good methodology can be distinguished from bad by checking with a community of other believers or experiencers who report having these feelings too. By comparing notes with them, the experiencer can become satisfied that what they are feeling is real.

The problem here should already be evident. If the believer draws the circle carefully and small enough around just those people in their tradition, from their church, or sect, then they might find what appears to be corroboration. But define the community of other-worldly travelers big enough to include the local mosque, synagogue, gurdwara, or shrine and suddenly we find people who are using the very same method to arrive at radically different and logically incompatible results. The history of human religious movements is filled with the near infinite splintering of one group from another over doctrinal and theological disagreements about the so-called one, true meaning of God’s communications. It’s laughable to suggest that the reliability of one’s inner sense of God can be proven by appealing to some consensus among believers that simply does not exist. Proving the reliability of the other-worldly method cannot be a matter of merely checking with your (close) friends.

The problem is made worse by the fact that there is a mentally ill guy on the corner by the supermarket who has lots of powerful, seemingly metaphysically significant ideas springing up in his mind too. The internalist theist has to admit that there needs to be some way to distinguish authentic epiphanies of God and reality from delusions, fantasies, and ideologically driven mistakes. If they have no way to separate them, and just insist that they have some really, really powerful feelings that God is there, what makes their claims any more acceptable to the rest of us than the homeless guy's?

The answer, of course, is that the internalist does not have anything resembling a method and no way of establishing the reliability of their special God sense over all the others. And that’s why we reject their claims to have knowledge this way. The problem has nothing to do with the totality of science or the adequacy of empirical methods to discover all truths. The problem is that so many of these non-empirical methods have produced obvious bullshit for millennia, and we should know better than to just accept some subjective feelings as reliable indicators of a metaphysical reality.

Two points to summarize. First, we should not allow the redirection of doubts about special private knowledge of God to a debate about the methods of science, naturalism, or materialism. That’s all beside the point. The real issue is: what are the reasons we have to think that God is real? Since the subjective realm is notoriously unreliable, it won’t be sufficient to defend internalism by merely insisting that religious belief is subjective and beyond the reach of empirical methods. There have got to be some methods of discrimination or the believer can have no knowledge.


G*3 said...

Fundamentalists in my (non-Christian) experience, try to get around the problem of members of other religions having religious experiences by either denying that anyone else truly has experiences like their co-religionists or by saying that others have such experiences, but those experiences are attributable to metaphysical evil forces in the world that produce these experiences to give those other religions an air of legitimacy and draw True Believers away from the One True Faith. Your post is a great rebuttal of their argument.

Richard H said...

I wonder if the theists are playing something of a shell game with the word "God".

When someone starts questioning materialism, it's hard to tell what specific claims they're making. I often can't even tell what sort of claim they're making.

For instance, they could be arguing for a physical-ish agent, the existence of a concept, the usefulness of a paradigm, or an attempt at conveying emotion via poetry. If we knew this, it might be easier to defend a method for determining truth.

Physical agents are testable. Any given concept likely exists. Paradigms can be useful or not, depending on subjective goals. And, I'm certain that theists feel ways about things.

The epistemological objections you describe might result from a theistic attempt to to use apply the language of physical claims to talk about perceptions of the world.

So, "'God' is a useful concept to me because it makes me happy to personify the things I don't understand. So, God exists as a useful concept," becomes something like, "God existence is a matter of spiritual Truth, which is a different kind of Truth than empirical truth. It's something that comes about via experience and feeling, and cannot be empirically verified."

The vague and unusually-defined language makes a trivial claim (I have a concept I like) seem universal and significant. It also keeps atheist from addressing it in a way that would create doubt.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the quick comments, both of you. G*3, you're right about the typical response. And when they give it, this double standard and ad hoc defense of just their "one-true-religion" is really transparent.

Richard, this is dead on the money. For lots of believers they simply equivocate on what they mean by God and what sorts of claims they make about him depending on who they are talking to and how much resistance they get. That's dangerous and needs to be called out.


Larry Tanner said...

I was recently trying to get a theist to explain on what grounds he was willing to accept the biblical claim of Exodus (which has no directly corroborating evidence) while he was unwilling to accept other claims, some of which had better attestation:

(1) People can predict historical events based on the relative positions and movements of the stars, the Sun and the Moon.

(2) Mohammad traveled upon a winged horse.

(3) Multiple gunmen assassinated John F. Kennedy.

(4) The U.S. government perpetrated 9/11.

(5) Aliens landed in Roswell, NM.

(6) Elvis is still alive.

(7) Witches infiltrated the Puritan community of colonial Salem, MA.

(8) Magician David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear.

(9) Bigfoot roams the U.S. Pacific northwest.

(10) Leprechauns exist, as identified in centuries-old texts from Ireland.

Do I need to tell you I did not get a straight answer?

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the comment Larry. This brings up another very important point. Not only does the internalist theist need to have some method to sort the real deliverances of their inner sense from the delusional, whatever standards they are using there must be consistent in their demands for proof with the rest of their epistemic practices. You've hit the nail on the head--a believer of this variety will accept a nebulous emotional feeling as an authentic communication with the creator of the universe himself, but he'll reject all of the evidence for global warming after subjecting it to the most extreme and careful scrutiny. I'm making a great deal of this point in the book manuscript I'm working on.


Matt McCormick said...

Still thinking about ways to put the point. Another variation on it:

The internalist theist has confused the demand for empirical confirmation and disconfirmation in science with the more general requirement for reasons that provide justification. Then by offering (misguided) objections to the scientific method, he seems to think he’s dismissed the need for reasons altogether. But beliefs that are just taken on without any concern for justification have nothing to distinguish them from lies, fantasies, delusions, or mistakes. The reasons you have for the claim are what entitle you to believe it and thereby think it is true. That’s not a requirement just for science—that’s the line between sanity and madness, reason and irrationality.

clamflats said...

First time commenter here -

To your point:
What are the criteria that you are employing to determine the reliability of this method to acquire supernatural knowledge?

Back in my twenties I attended a number of charismatic Christian services where people were "speaking in tongues". During the service someone would stand up and babble away followed by another person, one of the recognized elders of the church, "interpreting" the message. Except that sometimes no one would interpret the message, the congregant would speak in tongues, sit down, and nothing from the elders. I was skeptical and asked a friend, who attended regularly, what was happening here. He replied that speaking in tongues required interpretation (he claimed that requirement was biblically justified) and if none followed then the experience was not authentic. I asked if the speaker left hanging like that was just making it up. He thought that perhaps they were just caught up in the moment. It occurred to me that this was a way for the elders to give or withdraw favor upon a particular congregant.

Occasionally, two of the elders would begin interpreting simultaneously, one would eventually withdraw but it was clear their interpretations were different. My faithful friend had no explanation for that but remained resolute that he indeed was hearing the voice of God.

mikespeir said...

I grew up in a Pentecostal fellowship, clamflats, so I know firsthand what you're talking about. I spoke in tongues myself. It was one of those "miracles" that kept me in the Faith far too long. I was too dense to see that we're exposed to speech from before we even leave the womb and are diligently taught it thereafter. It's a trivial thing for us to hang a barrage of gobbledygook from the scaffolding of the cadences and rhythms of language that have become second-nature to us. Sounds like the real thing!

Larry Tanner said...

Matt, concerning your paragraph in the comments here on the internalist theist and the general requirement for reasons that provide justification:

I don't know that I quite see your point (need the nature of the confusion to be made concrete) and what I do see I'm not sure I agree with.

Certainly, theists have reasons that in their thinking justifies the beliefs they hold. My intuition is that these reasons emerge mainly from the social sphere and then only need to be rationalized.

Religion offers community, fellowship, support, song, and - perhaps most importantly - a narrative that the believer can use to frame his/her own life. By being a religious believer one literally gets to be a character in a grand story. I imagine it can be as fun as being on Facebook, playing a video game, or blogging.

Forgive me if I'm not making sense or if it seems I'm quibbling over side issues. However, my experience tells me that people do have concern for justification in their beliefs. They do in fact have reasons, strong ones, for identifying with certain beliefs. When it comes to beliefs they like - beliefs that match their cultural upbringing, temperament, social status, and so on - people are willing to demand less of them empirically. Indeed, they will even accept "you can't prove it's not so" as sufficient justification to retain their beliefs.

I imagine that if you asked someone to decide between two different beliefs that offered the same exact social payoff, you would get some interesting forays into the concrete reasoning and empirical considerations that would otherwise not be brought out in standard religious rationalization. Surely some have performed psychological / sociological studies along these lines?

Again, sorry if I'm rambling without any sense whatsoever.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks folks for the inputs. I never tire of hearing about Pentecostal service stories.

Larry, I think I see what you're getting at. The argument I'm making here is against a very particular breed of believer: one who rejects atheists' demand for evidence for their theism by asserting that not all knowledge is scientific. In my experience, this theist typical retreats to some muddled view about subjective or internally acquired knowledge. I'm trying to separate the conflation that lots of people make, including many atheists, between scientific knowledge requirements and the more general need for justification.

On your points about the role of belief in the theist's life: I think you're equivocating on reasons here. First sense: S has reasons for conclusion C= S believes a number of propositions that when taken jointly have the logical implication that C is true. Second sense: there are some causes-environmental, social, psychological, or neurological--that lead to S's having a belief. Philosophers often call this the explanation, not the reasons. The historical, social or psychological account of how a person came to believe might explain the causes if we think of the person just as a physical system. But from S's perspective, "provides emotional comfort," probably isn't a reason. That can't make you think that something is true. Forces like that usually operate on the unconscious level. Reasons are conscious, for the most part. It's a complicated issue. Does that make sense?


Larry Tanner said...

Thanks for the clarification.

Harlan Quinn said...

Hi matt,
I am a former DC contributor, I help John with maintaining the DC template, html and css code, and I recently started my own blog QuIRP. Its basically a project to perform logical analysis from an information science perspective on divinely revealed text. By day I'm a telecommunication engineer, but in my spare time i'm an autodidactic blogger with a passion for logical analysis of arguments.
the reason I'm writing you is that
your rss feed link doesn't work.
I was "hacking" a little bit and figured out two that will work for you
to enable feeds to your posts use this one as the link

to enable feeds for comments us this one.

Alternately there may be a setting in your blog configuration dashboard to do it for you. Both John and I use the blogger provided gadget from the configuration dashboard.

Additionally, I have started two logical analysis projects. One is a collaboration with shared documents with a theist, Unpacking the atonement. I'd appreciate your feedback on the document I've been working on which you can find here.

Thanks in advance.

Richard said...

You have one of the finest Atheist blogs on the web, thanks immensely for it.

Along the lines of what you were saying about the philosophical explanation vs. justifiable reasons believers have for believing, I offer this anecdote:

For years I have been trying to get my lifelong theistic friend to see the rationality and justifiability of the atheist position, but to no avail. The saying “A believer can’t be talked out of his beliefs because he most likely wasn’t talked into them in the first place” has some truthful resonance in this case.

My friend “Alvin” and I were both raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and I have failed to impress upon him the “loyalty to one’s own upbringing” bias that can be an underlying psychological cause for continued irrational belief into adulthood. He is an intelligent, articulate fellow who happens to have no problem with the supernatural/natural irreconcilabilities that having a theistic position poses. However he is a rationalist when it comes to scientific empiricism and has denied having a loyalty bias when critically examining his beliefs.

I’ve asked him “So what makes you so sure God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are real?” His answer:

“When I was 12, I was at a location where sightings of the Virgin Mary were known to happen. I looked into the trees as the sun’s light glimmered through the branches but saw nothing out of the ordinary. A few minutes later a boy who was taking Polaroid snapshots produced a photo of the sky and branches that showed angels with trumpets and the gates of heaven. From that moment I had a justifiable reason to believe because I had seen a miracle.”

My response, “how do you know what you saw is what you claim?” or, “how can I know what you saw is what you claim, or that you even saw anything at all?” The photo was never seen again.

It’s not too mystifying to think one can have utter confidence in something one saw as a child to be the very thing one was raised to believe, even to the point of betting one’s ontological security on it. But it’s still baffling that Alvin wouldn’t be sure enough to bet, say, his house on something we both agree could have both possibly happened and all but certainly did, namely scoring more than 100,000 points on a particular video game!!

Sorry for the tangent.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Richard. A couple of ideas: "I was raised that way," isn't a justifying reason for thinking something is true or good. We'd never accept it if a serial killer said, "Well, I was just raised to always hang them up and let the blood drain out." The upbringing might be the cause, but it's not evidence and it doesn't bear on the truth.

Second, a dimly remembered picture of a miracle from childhood is pretty sketchy evidence. Seems like the almighty, all knowing creator of the universe could/would make use of more appropriate means to communicate his presence than a lens flare.


Vera Keil said...

As a follower of religions and new age beliefs for half a century, I am encouraged and gratified to see atheists out and proud on the web.
I would never have believed that religious irrationality (oxymoron?)could gain the foothold it has in American politics and education.

This is an excellent intellectual resource; I am also interested in the lived experiences of current and former believers, cult members, religionists, etc. I follow Debunking Christianity and Ask a (ex)Scientologist, among others.

The Enlightenment! Old news! The Real Enlightenment is yet to be, when society as a whole will reject the 'internality' defense of oppressive and untenable belief systems, the danger of which is not in the 'belief' part but in the 'system' part--systems control, abuse and when they are allowed to, enslave.

Vera Keil said...

oops, meant to say "redundancy" not "oxymoron"--got so excited I forgot my rhetorical devices

Ron Cram said...

Hi Matt,
The subject of how to vet miraculous claims in antiquity is a great topic. As a theist, I believe I have good reasons to accept certain claims as valid. But there are claims for supernatural activity among other religions which I am very skeptical about.

Anyway, this is an interesting topic and I hope I can be involved in the discussion when I have more time.