Sunday, February 14, 2010

Finding God in My Own Mind

I’ve been involved in a protracted discussion of the merits of reformed epistemology (RE) in the comments section of Common Sense Atheism’s entry for my podcast.  On the RE view, the believer need not provide any justification for their theism because it is properly basic.  A belief that God is real is a direct, immediate, non-inferential belief that forms the foundations that justify other beliefs.  But it requires no propositional, evidential, or inferential justification itself.  Furthermore, it is aquired through something that Plantinga calls the sensus divinitatus. 

So I’ve been pressing hard to get some details about how this impressive direct hot line to God works. 

I asked: 

Maybe you all can just help me understand what this immediate, direct, non-inferential, basic apprehension of God is, exactly. I’m not really interested in theoretical interpretations or descriptions that are couched in abstract theological babble. I just want to hear some descriptions of the actual phenomenology of these moments, experiences, or apprehensions. Describe the sorts of feelings, sights, smells, or apprehensions that are occurring when one is having this direct hookup with God. For analogies, we have the Jodie Foster contacts aliens example and a guy who knows he didn’t commit a crime because he recalls being at home watching TV on Saturday night and not robbing a liquor store, or whatever. But obviously, one’s encounters with the almighty creator of the universe and master of all reality aren’t really going to be like either of these in any shape, manner, or form. So what exactly are they like? And what is it about them that engenders such profound confidence and such strong ontological conclusions?

A number of the respondents were evasive or only vaguely eluded to the way that we know mathematical truths or how we know that torturing babies is wrong.  Their direct knowledge of God, we are told, is “like that.” 

Not satisfied, and still wanting to know exactly what this special sixth sense of God is like when you have I continued to ask for descriptions. 

Robert Gressis, a philosopher at CSU Northridge, finally offered something more interesting: 

(quote)  I can’t speak for anyone but myself, and I haven’t had much in the way of religious experience, but I’ll give a go at answering the challenge. Here’s the challenge:

“what exactly does it feel like when God’s giving you these basic encounters with his reality. If I’ve got the sense too, I need to know when it’s happening to me. And I need to know how to distinguish it from the a long list of other unusual psychological states that all have completely natural, neurobiological origins.”

First, I don’t have religious experiences that God exists; I’m not sure I have experiences of anything’s existing, other than the experience of finding something that I had thought lost. What the experiences are like, when they occur, are like this: I experience some phenomenon; the thought occurs to me that God is responsible for this phenomenon; the thought that God is responsible for this phenomenon just makes sense.

Now, that doesn’t help you yet, but I wanted to give the general outline before I sketched it in. So, let me start with an example, not of a religious experience, but an experience of sense-making that can be likened to a religious experience.

In the past, when I read what Kant had to say about freedom in theCritique of Pure Reason and the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, I didn’t get what he meant. I started to think of freedom as having something to do with activity and being determined as having something to do with passivity. Kant seemed clear enough on that. But I didn’t get why the experience of activity would be any more indicative of a free action than an experience of being passively determined; after all, both feelings must be arranged into a deterministic causal nexus, so it didn’t appear to me to be obvious why one feeling should signify not being part of a causal nexus and why another one should.
Reading Berkeley, though, as well as Wayne Waxman’s treatment of him in Kant and the Empiricists made things clear for me. On Waxman’s account of Berkeley, there were certain feelings of activity that you couldn’t in fact have an experience of. That is, there was no sensible content to the “experience” of acting freely. Since for Berkeley, to be is to be perceived, it meant that free action didn’t exist. But Berkeley had another category, subsistence, which was how perceivers like God and us carried on. We weren’t perceived, so we didn’t exist, but we were still implied by there being perceptions, so something had to be going on with us. And so for Berkeley, that something was non-perceivable subsistence.

Once I read that, Kant’s writings on freedom made a lot more sense to me. Free actions couldn’t be placed in a causal nexus, but it made sense to posit them as being responsible for the feeling of activity. The feeling of activity was an evidence of transcendentally apperceiving one’s own responsibility for something.

The point of all the foregoing was that there was a revelatory feeling granted by a new way of conceiving things that introduced a Gestalt shift in my apprehension of Kant’s writings on freedom. I felt like I got it, finally. Everything had a new cast, even though they were the same words.

Now, let’s apply that to God. There were certain experiences in my life–in my own case, the main one I can think of is kind of peculiar. I was in church, and I strongly felt that God was a monster. I didn’t feel that because of suffering in Africa or anything like that; I felt it because I disliked strongly the people around me in church. They weren’t kind or open, and they seemed to me that they could not care less whether I ever showed up to church at all. And I felt angry at God for attracting such milquetoast people. But with that condemnation of God, there was a great feeling of liberation. I felt great–I felt I was truly myself. I felt as though a burden had been lifted off of me. And, if I remember things correctly, I felt an intense feeling of thankfulness–my feeling of personal liberation and the ensuing sense of comfort in my own skin made me feel a kind of gratitude to God. I felt like this is what I could be. And attributing that to God made the most sense to me. Seeing God as the provenance of this feeling just made the most sense to me–it was part of the Gestalt shift.

Could this feeling have a natural, neurobiological origin. Surely. In fact, if God exists, and wants us to come to know him, I would expect us to be hardwired for belief in God. I would expect that there were certain circumstances in which many people felt attributing certain psychological states to invisible agents made the most sense for us.

Can I know how to distinguish this state from a hallucination? Nope. I don’t know how to distinguish any of my states from hallucinations.

So, I shared. Now, I want you to share with me, Matt. You don’t have to, of course. You may be less confessional than I. That said, when you write, “Please give me some reasons to think that you all are not just putting us on”, are you serious? Do you think that the people who talk about their religious experiences are just lying to you? Do you think they’re lying to themselves? I ask because this is the second time you’ve mad this request; you’ve also written, “Religion, particularly some of forms of Christianity, seems to have a corrupting effect on a set of cognitive faculties that were already pretty kludged together by evolution, and the noetic effects of the Christian ideology exploits various gaps and glitches in the system. The result is often a near total highjacking of the cognitive system that borders on delusion.” In other words, you think “some forms of” Christians follow a religion that brings them close to the brink of delusion. What do you mean by that? Do you literally mean a kind of psychological pathology that would perhaps be helped by therapy? Do you think this is a serious condition? Do you worry about such people?

I don’t mean to come off as hostile. I hope I didn’t. I have been told such things before, though–that I have psychological problems, that I shouldn’t be allowed to teach philosophy, and all because of my theism. So it’s something of a sore spot for me. 
(End of quote.) 

I’m grateful to Robert for taking a serious question seriously and trying to answer it.  This is better than the evasions I typically get, but it still has a number of problems.   Here’s my response:

This is interesting, but it doesn’t sound like the sort of direct, non-inferential access to God’s existence that Plantinga and co. talk about. You said, “I’m not sure I have experiences of anything’s existing.” I am taking RE to maintain that the apprehension of God’s reality is immediate, quasi-sensory, and basic (not involving any propositional or inferential justification). And the resulting conviction that God is real is strong enough that long and careful deliberation on the part of the Christian who reflects on Marx, Freud, and others with objections to theism will still leave them reasonably convinced that God is real. The basic apprehension of God defeats all of these defeaters. It doesn’t sound to me like there’s anything nearly up to this epistemological task in the story you are telling, but I don’t know the whole story. That is just to say that it doesn’t sound like you are putting all of your eggs in the RE basket, or at least you shouldn’t. I wouldn’t, if I were you.

So now, as I understand it, the analogy is roughly something like this. Thinking of God as a real being provides a set of sense-making, understanding granting, or revelation type feelings about certain sorts of cognitive, personal, and emotional dissonances. Believing that God is real is to those cognitive dissonances what Waxman’s interpretation of Kant and Berkeley are to dissonances about Kant’s theory of freedom.

There are several things that I think have gone wrong here. In no particular order: The analogy is out of whack. Waxman’s reading of Kant is just an academic interpretation of a work of philosophy. Reading it and understanding it doesn’t entail accepting any claims about real objects existing. And it certainly doesn’t entail accepting the existence of a vast, all powerful, all knowing supernatural creator of the universe. That is, the stakes are vastly higher and more metaphysically significant in the God case than they are in the Waxman/Kant case. The only sorts of analogies that I can think of that might work better would be hypotheses about the existence of subatomic particles like the Higgs Boson or something where there’s a whole bunch of empirical data, and no other hypothesis can explain it so well (and make our cognitive dissonance go away) as positing the real existence of the particles in the universe.

But there’s the rub. The sorts of dissonances that you’re talking about are feelings—anger, frustration at first, and then liberation, thankfulness, comfort with the acceptance of God. And none of these would be adequate to indicate the existence of something big and important. The study I cited above is just the start of the empirical evidence that shows how unreliable our cognitive faculties are, especially when we are angry, frustrated, overjoyed, enthusiastic, bitter, ingratiated, and so on. Men gamble more and engage in more risk when they are angry or sexually aroused. We’ve got lots of really telling evidence that people’s feelings of confidence and certainty after they have taken a test, for instance, aren’t predictive of their actual performance on the test. We’ve got compelling evidence that subjective certainty isn’t callibrated well with performance across a wide range of cognitive tasks. In fact, for many things, as certainty goes up, performance actually goes down. In fact, I can’t think of any instances where the presence of all of these emotions wouldn’t make us more suspicious of the conclusions that the cognitive agent comes to. At the very least, the feelings should be treated as something tangential to the actual evidence that is relevant to figure out what’s real, not as the evidence itself. Why do I believe that the horse won the race? Not because I am jumping up and down happy, but because we can observe the horse at the front of the pack. The happiness is the reaction, not the reason.

Another problem, and no doubt you won’t see it this way, is that while God might seem to make all the pieces fall into place about some of these problems that were bugging you, when you take a really broad view of the dissonant issues that need to be resolved, introducing God makes it harder, not easier to make sense of it all. The problem of other religions, other supernatural beings, the inductive problem of evil, a host of deductive atheology arguments, the problem of divine hiddenness, and so on all make it really hard to countenance God as the answer to a much broader class of questions about reality, the origin of the universe, the success of science and naturalism, and the failures of orthodox religious dogmas. As I see it, if one wants to sign on for some orthodox conception of God like Plantinga’s Calvinism or Van Inwagen’s Catholicism, or Craig’s fundamentalism, the only way to make your worldview roughly coherent is by adopting a long list of increasingly strained metaphysical, epistemological, and moral provisions that help to make the old world doctrine sit more comfortably with the general advances in human knowledge that we have made. You have to take on too many complicated, ad hoc, or bizarre views about evolution, natural selection, consciousness, human moral failings, history, cosmology, science, neurology, and so on. That is, God might make you feel better about some little, local stuff, but it’s really hard to see how he fits with the rest of what we know.

Sharing: no, actually, this doesn’t sound delusional to me—I think believing in God on grounds like this, if this is what RE entails, is unreasonable. Presuppositional apologetics is pretty scary. All of the tens of hundreds of millionis of apocalyptic millenialists and rapture nuts are really scary. I get comments from people who find my blog just about every week where it appears that Christian ideology has devoured their whole consciousness and they’ve completely lost the capacity to think about the issue with any objectivity. And they appear to be ready to pull the trigger, as it were.

I’ve gone on long enough. So just one more little note. You said, “In fact, if God exists, and wants us to come to know him, I would expect us to be hardwired for belief in God.” Yeah, I see why this appeals. But I am always surprised at the lack of imagination about this issue. If God exists, and he wants to make his existence known to us, couldn’t he have done a better job? Wouldn’t it be a trivial matter for an all powerful being to do a better job than, say, I can do when I want people to believe something? (And please don’t give me the old line about faith, or about God not wanting to compromise our freedom to choose.) I have to think, given that he could have made it abundantly clear, and given that he didn’t, if there is a God, he doesn’t want us to believe in him.

There are many more details and the comments continue.  But I thought I’d share some of the more interesting stuff here. 

RE takes an enormous amount of energy to unpack and understand.  It is a sophisticated and subtle position.  But in the end, I find it highly dubious for a number of reasons, some of which are listed above.  The retreat that RE advocates have made to the protection of their own minds has come with a cost.  The natural theology project seems to have been abandoned.  Rather now the efforts are to establish that someone who believes is in no violation of their epistemic duties.  That is a significantly less ambitious project than the former efforts to produce a sound argument for the existence of God that would render it unreasonable for anyone who acknowledged the truth of the premises to refuse to believe.  Now, it would appear that the RE advocate just wants to be left alone with their epistemic community where they can share their basic knowledge of God. 

That might be less objectionable were it not for some problems.  First, many RE advocates continue to pursue and present natural theological arguments and engage in vigorous debates with non-believers over what they take to be compelling evidence for God’s existence.  Second, Plantinga has pursued an argument that naturalism and evolution entail that our cognitive belief forming faculties are unreliable unless we posit the existence of God who designs and maintains them.  So it would appear that the natural theological project is still alive and well.  But now objections to belief in God are met with assurances that the believer’s direct access to God provides them with a defeater defeater that successfully refutes the various objections to their view.  Objections to their view, and a failure to acknowledge the sensus divinitatus in the hearts of all people are just indicators of the wretched state of the noetic faculties of non-believers due to their sinful and corrupt natures.  This battery of approaches to the existence of God effectively barricades RE off from all criticism and makes it deeply suspicious, not to mention circular:  How do I know that God exists? I can apprehend it immediately with my special cognitive powers. How do I know that I can trust my special cognitive powers to deliver the truth? God designed them and made them function properly.  You can see the circle here in the course of a 6 minute video.  "It just seems to me right that there is a God.  It's more like a personal experience.  . . . .If you don't believe in God and you think we evolved, then you have to believe that your cognitive faculties are unreliable."  

It is unfortunate that the view has gained so many adherents.  See the comments section for some more of my ideas on how to avoid the various red herrings and non sequiturs that are often brought up in its defense.  


Anonymous said...

RE is merely a lot of hot air surrounding the equivalent of a three-year old child's answer to why he stole a cookie - Just Cuz

Luke said...

Keep pressing. You may yet get some helpful answers, at least from Robert.

mikespeir said...

I think the assertion is that God instills into us, unlearned, an awareness of his existence. It's a view I would have subscribed to at one time. I don't buy it anymore. I think this "awareness" is really inculcated into some people during their religious upbringing. They grow up confusing first and second nature.

That's not to say that there aren't certain "first nature" needs we all groan under, predominately the need to feel secure. We all feel a little insecure. Then, when this God character is posited as the ultimate solution to our insecurities, we might very well want to grasp for him in response to the need. Our mistake is in thinking that the innate need is for God. It is not. The need is for security.

Matthius said...

I'm an atheist, but I've had spiritual moments/experiences of a profound magnitude. I don't think they have anything to do with god(s) though. One was rather chemical (heavy dose of alcohol while playing in a jam session, leading to a brief ego-killing trip), and the other was more visually stimulating (sense of extreme awe looking down from the summit of a volcano crater).

I feel like we should safely be able to separate the spiritual from the divine.

Bobcat said...

I will indeed respond to this. Probably not until Tuesday or Wednesday, though.

Rob Gressis

M. Tully said...

My Sensus Bulshiticus tells me that RE is bullshit.

Would the RE supporters care to respond (and by respond, I of course mean without intellectual hypocrisy)?

OK, really, intuition as THE final arbiter? Did the Enlightenment not happen to these people? Do they not realize that we have both split and fused atoms? That matter and energy are in fact equivalent? That just because you flipped a coin 8 freaking times in a row that came up heads that the next toss is still 50-50?

No, apparently not. I really must publish a book titled, "Sensus Bullshiticus" (c).

Reginald Selkirk said...

"In fact, if God exists, and wants us to come to know him, I would expect us to be hardwired for belief in God"

Well this isn't what we see. People are not hardwired for specific belief in a specific God. The observation which has been made is that people across many cultures have a tendency toward religious belief in general. I.e. It is nothing more specific than stating that people everywhere can be superstitious. It is no more evidence for the omni-philosophical God than it is evidence for all the variety of rain gods and fertility gods and volcano gods.

And, on the flip side, religious disbelief is also found in a wide variety of cultures.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Do you think that the people who talk about their religious experiences are just lying to you? Do you think they’re lying to themselves?

There is very good evidence that most people lie some of the time. There is very good evidence that some people lie to themselves. There is also very good evidence that people's knowledge of their mental processes is not as thorough as they believe it to be. The evidence for dishonesty and delusion is much more solid than the evidence for the existence of any god.

Which brings us right back to the original question: if you want to claim that some of those people, at least some of the time, are not lying either to us or to themselves, how can we tell?

Bobcat said...

Hi Matt,

I posted a synopsis of our conversation on Prosblogion. The first version of my post accidentally published early, so one of the trackbacks is to that old post. The new post is up, though, and there are already some comments on it.

I still haven't responded to any of your objections, but at least the post is up, so others can respond to your challenge. Anyway, I'm going to post my own remarks as soon as I can.


jkshields said...

The Intro Bit:

I originally posted this on Common Sense Atheism,... but then realized it had sparked an entry on your blog here, so I am re-posting.

"Matt McCormick: There’s still no one who can offer some details about what it’s like to have this sensus divinitatus or the testimony of the Holy Ghost?What’s it like when your radio is tuned to the God channel?Please give me some reasons to think that you all are not just putting us on. "

I don’t fall into the category of a “reformed epistemologist” but after reading about this debate on Prosblogion I thought I’d give it a shot. I doubt what I describe would be hailed by RE proponents as the experience which justifies 'proper basicality.' I am not sure if that experience can be described in the way you are asking for; it is similar to asking someone to describe the sorts of feelings, sights, smells, or apprehensions that are occurring which justifies saying "I am a person." Forgive me if I talk in Academ-Theo-glish, I am trying to avoid it.

The Answer Bit:

Since you have asked for sights and smells etc. I will do my best to put what I would call “an intuition” in these terms. Most of the time my knowledge of God being is like a buzzing, above the sense of interior thought monologue,… and/or the series of incoming thought perceptions. It is the sensation of community, similar to the sensation when two people are reading in a room, even though they are occupied with separate ideas there is more than a concept of communion, there is a metaphysic,… a real relation between us. But I become even more aware of God’s being (primarily verb not noun) when I try to push away from this buzzing/relation-awareness. It is similar to the feeling of missing a step, surprise, and then fear, and then pain. And whether you end up in a heap on the floor or catch the next step, you are thankful to feel ground beneath you although aggrieved at the whole event. When I try to think “There is no God” there is an unbearable emptiness and meaninglessness to my present awareness, my knowledge and presumption of personal and intellectual history become scrambled like looking at 0s and 1s instead of program output on a computer, and I have no sense of momentum to the next moment.
I don’t know if that is the kind of description you were looking for, but it is much more a result of what I would call a meditation on God (in the style of Descartes) or Schleiermacher's feeling of absolute dependance than a true testimony (which is more about our perceptions of God's activity in the world post-conversion and not about the being of God, which is meta-conversion?) and I think anything which undergirds proper basicality will have to be a similar meditation, which may come down to (as your anonymous commentator said sardonically, but seems to me serious enough) "Just Cuz".

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks JK. This is very interesting, and more enlightening than much of what I've gotten on this. But it's still problematic, I think. What you are describing is a bunch of sensations or feelings, and you've heavily interpreted them as having a particular significance and indicating God's existence. That could be fine, but what's important is how you get from the first to the second. You realize, of course, that feelings can arise from a lot of sources, some of them external and many internal. And you realize that even when the source is external, we are often mistaken in the conclusions we draw about what's really going on. So the $64k question for someone who infers God in this way is, what is your error checking, corrective, or disconfirmation methodology? What measures have you taken or do you take to be able to say first, I have had a bunch of (remarkable) feelings, and second, from among all of the alternative natural and supernatural alternative explanations, I have sufficient grounds to conclude that the feelings are caused by this particular God and not something else?

And I have to say, that I think the notion of needing to actively seek out and then disprove all of the relevant alternative hypotheses is something that many religious folks in this tradition bother with. They already believe in God, they have a particular ideology that they subscribe to, then when they have some funny feelings, they take those without much more effort to disconfirm as evidence for God. The problem, of course, is that this doesn't provide justification for us in any other ordinary circumstances. More later.


TaiChi said...

"You realize, of course, that feelings can arise from a lot of sources, some of them external and many internal. And you realize that even when the source is external, we are often mistaken in the conclusions we draw about what's really going on. "

Hi Matt. You wouldn't be able to point me towards a paper or the like that expands on this explanation?
This sounds like an idea I've had for some time, which I took from a theory of how panic attacks work. Roughly, the subject notices some stimulus (this might be a bodily sensation, or something external), interprets it as threatening, which then alters the perception of the stimulus in line with the interpretation, which then feeds back into the interpretation. The positive feedback loop quickly leads to a full-blown panic attack, and what was ambiguously threatening has become terrifying.
I think mystical experiences could be explained in a similar way to this - as interpretation and stimulation feeding off one another - and it would do just as well for road-to-Damascus type experiences as for minor mystical experiences.

Any Pointers or thoughts for me on this?

M. Tully said...


You wrote, "When I try to think “There is no God” there is an unbearable emptiness and meaninglessness to my present awareness, my knowledge and presumption of personal and intellectual history become scrambled like looking at 0s and 1s instead of program output on a computer, and I have no sense of momentum to the next moment."

But, in the end, the program output is the results of 1's and 0's isn't it?

Why can't we appreciate the results of the 1's and 0's on the screen for what they are? Why do you think that invoking magic is necessary to appreciate the program?

T said...

When we (the human species) don't have all the information at hand for something/anything, our minds tend to "auto-fill" the missing peices of information. Magicians rely heavily on these processes to complete their illusions. When something looks to be a certain way and we don't readily understand what took place, we make sense of the event using what we DO know. Even our eyes fill in missing peices of information, leaving no one to say they are immune to this process. Proper thinking has to have safeguards to minimize the effect of this "auto-fill" process our brains do. I wish I had time to look up this specific study, but I seem to remember elements of this may be outlined in an article titled, "Less guilty by reason of adolesence." I believe this article described some of the neurological processes that occur during flight or fight responses. During highly emotional events the logical processing of information is dimished and events are often highly altered when an individual later "recalls" those events.

RE seems to fit nicely in with the neurological "auto-fill" processes, including confirmation baises that we are all prone to.

I appreciate this site because it helps one to understand these pitfalls and to build safegards into one's critical thinking skills.

Anonymous said...


I am thinking the internal checking process is a priori but maybe the excerpt below is has somethign to do with RE?


"There was a young man who said "God

Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be

When there's no one about in the quad."

"Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd; I am always about in the quad.

And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God."

Anonymous said...


Atheists often ask, "where is the evidence for God"

A possible problem with this is that the issue of God is not evidence based much like science, math and many disciplines that have a "philosophy of" in front of them. So maybe when atheist ask for evidence they are asking for too much. Basically they are being unfair in requiring theist to give them a proof of an issue that only requires an argument. The acceptance and practice of science has no proof but an argument (philosophy of science). Even logic has no definitive proof as the meta proof of the proof can still be questioned for a proof by the sneaky theist.

I recently sat on a jury and during deliberations encountered that half the jury wanted to acquit the man because the evidence that existed was not enough. I thought that this was interesting because I wondered what amount of evidence would be enough. It was suggested by some jurors that if the man was on trial for a lesser crime they would convict him easily. But this strikes me as shifting the level of evidence in accord with the level of crime. This seems inherently unfair as an X amount of evidence should convict a man, whether the committed shop lifting or murder.

My point here is that asking for evidence for God's existence may be unfair. It isn’t like God is a Zebra in the animal kingdom that can be checked for DNA. Science, math and other disciplines are not evidence based as well and we would think it bizarre to ask where the evidence is for incorporating the existence of the scientific method into our lives.

So, are atheist being unfair in asking for evidence of God?

If not what amount of evidence is necessary for an atheist to believe in God?


Anonymous said...

I've had many 'spiritual' experiences, but I find them to be irrelevant to the existence of some invisible being. It is more of a personal, subjective thing. To experience a god would probably be more objective if it were to happen.
The Atheist Perspective

M. Tully said...


You directed your question to Matt, but here is my take:

"So, are atheist being unfair in asking for evidence of God?"

I'll give you my short answer,"NO."

Now, for my long answer. If I want to discover if a phenomenon is true then I look for evidence. That is if I want to know if I put it in my bag of knowledge and expect it to deliver consistent results, then I look for evidence. I do that because to do otherwise requires me to surrender any sense of truth.

Evidence is the final arbiter. In fact, it is the common human definition of sanity. No matter what logically seems right or what makes me feel good or any other criteria, in the end the proof is in the evidence. No rational person in their day-to-day lives denies this on important issues.

I don't believe in common sense as the final arbiter because common sense is frequently wrong. How do I know intuition is frequently wrong, the evidence.

Why shouldn't I believe in Zeus, Vishnu, Bigfoot, and anal probing alien abductors? Really, give me a good reason why I shouldn't without resorting to an argument from evidence.

You can't. You'll use evidence to refute all of the claims of the above entities. But when it comes to your pet entity you ask for special dispensation. Why should I dismiss all those other entities because of a lack of evidence but accept yours because I'm setting the bar too high for you?

Or, to be consistent, are you saying that I should believe anything anyone suggests because evidence doesn't matter?

M. Tully said...

"If not what amount of evidence is necessary for an atheist to believe in God?"

Short answer: Evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Long answer: Real life, no equivocation miracles.

Now, I don't know what your theological leanings are, but I'll give you a couple of examples from the Christian Bible.

In Joshua chapter 10, Joshua asks the sun to stand still and, "So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the people had revenge upon their enemies."

Now, today we know that at the equator the linear velocity of the earth is about 1,000 mph. If tomorrow the earth suddenly stops and the majority of life isn't killed by that rapid acceleration, I'm going to start to say, "Hey maybe there is something supernatural at work here (still probably not going to worship it because the event only happened to enable the slaughter of sentient beings, but hey, it's something)."

Or in Matthew, chapter 27: "And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who were fallen were raised; And after coming out of the graves after his resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many."

A number of verifiable corpses suddenly rising from decomposure and reconstituting themselves? Yep, you'd have my attention.

According to that ancient text, events like those above used to happen with some regularity. Now, not so much so. Hmmm?

How about an easy one. God, Gods, spirits (holy or otherwise) all rest on a single premise; consciousness without a material brain. You want to hook me (or at least get me to follow the lure)? Demonstrate it, just once. Just once demonstrate consciousness without a material brain. I'm no ideologue, I promise you'll have my attention.

Anonymous said...


I have no idea what you mean by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. One reading of David Hume and the problem of induction ought to convince you that scientific evidence is not certain. So I don’t know what type of evidence you are referring to nor to what extent. But if you were a reasonable person you ought to have a falsification for your non belief in God or I am just going to convince you of having faith in your position.

For the consciousness problem of materialism Try reading Saul Kripke on identity theory. He provides an nice elaborate argument using modal logic suggesting that mental states cannot be the same as physical states of the brain.


Matt McCormick said...

CS, you're conflating "evidence" with "empirical observations." Arguments count as a form of evidence or reasons that would justify believing. That's all the my demand for evidence is. Provide some grounds or reasons that render believing reasonable. If that's an unfair request, then I don't know what to say. Sounds like you're wanting to bracket off God belief from any sort of real rational scrutiny the way the reformed epistemologists are doing. I'm not willing to do that. The belief in God is too central and influential in too many people's lives for us to just let it go uncritically.

Kripke's now dated argument about consciousness not withstanding, no one in the philosophy of mind really doubts that mind emanates from or is dependent upon the brain. Whatever the explanatory details are about mental states and consciousness, the existence of minds is grounded in brain function.

Matt McCormick said...

Tully, I have to disagree with you about these kinds of proof. A miracle like stopping the earth from turning might be sufficient, under the right circumstances, to indicate that some supernatural force of adequate power to stop the earth exists. But that's a long way from showing than an omnipotent, omniscient, all good, singular, personal monotheistic God is real. If I told you I could bench press 1,000 lbs, and then I only did 100, would you take that as sufficient evidence for the stronger claim? I've addressed miracles in a lot of earlier posts too. See the category at the left on miracles.


M. Tully said...

"A miracle like stopping the earth from turning might be sufficient, under the right circumstances, to indicate that some supernatural force of adequate power to stop the earth exists. But that's a long way from showing than an omnipotent, omniscient, all good, singular, personal monotheistic God is real."

Matt, I agree. I shouldn't have equivocated supernatural with omni-god. But dang, at least you could have given me credit for lowering the bar for the other guy.

M. Tully said...


"For the consciousness problem of materialism Try reading Saul Kripke on identity theory."

Mmmm, my reading list is pretty full, can you give me the quick and dirty on how Kripke demonstrated consciousness without a material brain?

I'll wait.

And that goes to your other question, and the whole "problem with induction" thing, there is no problem with induction. Yes, if I looked everywhere that was reasonable and never saw a black swan then I would hold that all swans are white, but it is a tentative conclusion. If a black swan is demonstrated then I change my assumption. But now let's look at the alternative. If I looked everywhere that was reasonable and never saw a black swan then I would hold that there MUST be black swans (as well as yellow, red, green and purple with pink polka-dots). And that is the real problem with any non-induction idea of knowledge.

Anonymous said...


David Hume on the problem of Induction. Its often taught in a history of modern philosophy course or Phil of science course

Kripke also raised the prospect of a posteriori necessities — facts that are necessarily true, though they can be known only through empirical investigation. Examples include “Hesperus is Phosphorus”, “Cicero is Tully”, “Water is H2O” and other identity claims where two names refer to the same object.

Finally, Kripke gave an argument against identity materialism in the philosophy of mind, the view that every mental fact is identical with some physical fact (See talk). Kripke argued that the only way to defend this identity is as an a posteriori necessary identity, but that such an identity — e.g., pain is C-fibers firing — could not be necessary, given the possibility of pain that has nothing to do with C-fibers firing. Similar arguments have been proposed by David Chalmers


Anonymous said...


Trying to prove or disprove God is like going down a never ending rabbit hole. You will spend the rest of your life wrestling with the issue taking it from this perspective.

As far as Kripke and Chalmers I believe they are still around and would beg to differ on your claim that nobody in the Phil of mind would agree with them. From my last course in Phil of mind not to long ago these current philosophers held a lot of weight in the field. Now if you're suggesting that the eliminative materialist camp is popular you are being disingenuous. That camp is a minority in the field of Phil of mind and have some pretty bizarre positions that reduce widely accepted mental states of belief, desire, lust etc as just physiological processes. In fact Kirpke‘s argument flat out refutes such thinking by suggesting that the state of pain cannot be stimulation of C-fibers. And I am not aware that any philosopher that has put up any effective argument against kripke to date. But you're more than welcome to post evidence supporting your claim that Kirpke’s argument is outdated or that elminative materialism is a dominant position in the Phil of mind.


M. Tully said...


So I'll take it that Kripke never demonstrates consciousness without a material brain.

My point being (for this as well as the Hume thing, which by the way I believe I stole the swan analogy from Hume) is that whatever problems materialists may have in explaining consciousness, they are insignificant compared to the problem the immaterialist has; that is having absolutely no basis for their premise. It has never been demonstrated anywhere. Consciousness is just the latest place the god of the gaps has retreated to. But where is the warrant to go from we don't understand "x" part of consciousness to ergo I know it is something that has never been shown to exist.

Think about it, going from I don't know to therefore I know it must be something that I have no evidence for.

Likewise for problems induction has. It's not perfect, but nothing comes close to delivering the results. Which is why when we really want to figure something out, it's what we use. We have learned a great deal about the universe by realizing that predictable patterns exist and can be discovered and used to make testable predictions, that is to say by using induction.

Anonymous said...


I understand where you are coming from. I made the same argument as a Phil undergrad when first presented with mind/body dualism. But there is much more to think about then presuming it is silly to think a mind may not be a material thing. Its a complicated topic and one that is not as simple as you infer. But identity plays a large role in materialism that equates mental states with psychological processes (brain states)

If you were to agree with Kripke’s argument then you can only conclude that minds are not material. Since we only have material vs. non material then by the law of exclusive middle concluding either one or the other is logically sound.

I really think you should read Kripke's argument against materialism (i.e. identity theory). I think it would give you a better appreciation for the subject matter even if you don’t agree with him. Personally, I am not sure whether the mind is material or not. Remember, I am agnostic about most things...


Matthew Griffin said...


Your question seems like it would be difficult to answer in any context, though maybe I am misinterpreting. What I mean is, even if you merely asked me to tell you how it feels to sense a Zebra, I think I'd have a hard time getting the point across...

I remember picking up a Christian flier on campus while taking your Philosophy of Mind class, which asked me "describe yellow" to a blind man. It would be really hard to do that, right?

Though my second scenario is not quite as analogous to the God Sense (since a blind man is incapable of sensing yellow), I imagine this is how Christians feel when asked a question like yours.

This is, of course, assuming that people are sensing God in the first place. Another concern, as you rightly point out, is if people sense God then why have 'faith in God'? We don't have faith in the Yellow or in Zebras.

Kodie said...

Hi, I have been reading a lot of the articles that really address my questions and thoughts, unlike some other websites I frequent regarding religion and atheism.

I wondered if I might guess what it feels like to sense god. In my experience, it is called neurosis. For example, some people get a really good "lucky" feeling when they notice a digital clock on certain numbers, or feel that a sandwich tastes slightly better if it is cut on the diagonal. Small differences make all the difference between ok and not quite ok, unease, and even a brief euphoria. Some people feel a boost whenever they see dogs, eat spaghetti, or smoke a cigarette, and feel significantly worse when they see snakes, eat oatmeal, or run out of cigarettes. Normal physical responses for peculiar preferences - some hate what we like and vice versa.

jkshields' description sounded a lot like that to me. When God is "there," it feels like he/she is not alone, in a comforting way, like knowing you have food in the refrigerator without having to look at it, and so do not have a reason to fear going hungry, and unlike paranoia. When crisis is averted or survived, it feels like misplaced gratitude, attributing this catch to a divine being... relief like knowing your spouse's flight landed safely when you are yourself scared of airplanes. When imagining a world without god or god has suddenly disappeared, to a point where one doesn't know what to do (!?), maybe that is like losing your glasses or your keys. There are some people who become uneasy if there is one dirty spoon in the sink, and some who fidget if someone is 30 seconds late, or if something on their desk isn't perpendicular. Common feelings that are unreal but real.

I think we all can relate to my examples as if you imagine god to be vitally important to the outcome of major events as well as to imagine god to be an individual factor, a peculiarity of yourself that gives you moments of highs and lows - they tick in your brain when they happen, but not exactly the same way for everyone. Someone else said they might be more like a panic attack, but I don't think sensing god always has to be that dramatic.

I don't know where neuroses come from, but I find it telling that I share a few with my sister that we never realized until we were adults. Things "feel right" when minor details are what, to the individual, is "right," and when those details are slightly askew or even haphazard, most rational people will bear through it silently with internal unease, but some people have the embarrassment of not being able to function until they, oh, recite the list of states in alphabetical order, as if this were on the same level of importance as finding your keys before you can leave the house.

I have heard people try to describe how it feels to know god or to receive messages in their heart or whatever, and none of them sounded remarkably different than a neurosis of no realistic bearing, being that I don't believe in god, but I imagine it is more for them like the example with the airplane making it ok. However:

Thousands of flights make it ok every single day. Fear of flight is one of those things that's really irrational, but most of us tend to excuse it. Most of us can relate to wanting to check on an individual's safety in such a situation, and never think twice that their taxi will go off a bridge or something else that might happen but usually doesn't. It just makes us feel better to check than not know, and find out everything's still ok, even if it can go bad some other way.

I hope my examples made sense. This is a really interesting blog with a lot of great topics, but a lot of academic language I'm not used to.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks very much Kodie, and thanks for reading. You're examples are helpful.


everettattebury said...

TaiChi said:
This sounds like an idea I've had for some time, which I took from a theory of how panic attacks work. Roughly, the subject notices some stimulus (this might be a bodily sensation, or something external), interprets it as threatening, which then alters the perception of the stimulus in line with the interpretation, which then feeds back into the interpretation. The positive feedback loop quickly leads to a full-blown panic attack, and what was ambiguously threatening has become terrifying.

When I read this I thought of the little child in bed who convinces himself there is a monster in the closet, and the superstitions of the jungle tribes in Papua New Guinea who blame misfortunes on invisible witches.

I'll bet the tribal members think that their beliefs in witchcraft are "properly basic" too.

normdoering said...

I've got some videos on Alvin Plantinga on my youtube channel that you might find useful and enjoyable: