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.  

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Luke, over at Common Sense Atheism (a very good blog with lots of stimulating ideas), has posted an interview that he did with me recently as a podcast here:  McCormick Interview.  He's also indexed the discussions and draw links to lots of other posts.  The podcast has also stirred up a number of criticisms of my positions among his theistic readers.  An exchange between me and them has been unfolding in the comments that may be of interest to you too.

And while I'm at it, I should direct your attention to two very rhetorically effective posters, one that he created.  The first is a long list of 2800+ dead gods that you don't believe in.  The visual impact of seeing several thousand of them all listed in one place makes the point better than the long winded analysis that I'm prone to.  Second, there's this very demonstrative poster at Sam Harris' Reason Project showing hundreds of contradictions in the Bible that create all sorts of challenges for believers.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

My Imaginary Friend

The view that you can’t be moral without God is one of the most widely held among believers.  The claim is muddled by ambiguities, however.  Does it mean that people won’t behave morally unless they believe God exists?  Billions of non-believers on the planet who are perfectly decent people prove that wrong.  Does it mean that people wouldn’t have a moral conscience if it weren’t for God?  Animal research that has discovered remarkable proto-moral behavior in animals from rats to monkeys shows that that’s mistaken too, although I expect that once this research becomes too widely known to reject or ignore, believers will start claiming that the animals got their morals from God too.  Does it mean that unless a person believes, they won’t have the right motive for doing the right thing?  No, doing the right thing because you think you’re being watched or threatened with punishment isn’t being moral; that’s utterly selfish.   

Any way you parse the claim, it comes out absurd.  But what’s even more difficult to sift from the believer’s confused assertions is any clear account of what God wants us to do.  Even a casual read of the Bible or other religious doctrine makes it immediately clear that what believers typically do is emphasize the passages that suit them and ignore the ones that don’t.  They’re all sure that we have to consult God to find out what’s right and wrong, but thousands of years of bickering makes it quite clear that there’s no agreement about exactly what those rights and wrongs are.  If their example is any indicator, God wanted us all to cherry pick the rules that we agree with and then find ways to explain away the ones that we don’t. 

For some firsthand evidence that you don’t think, reason, or consult the Bible to get your moral values, go to, create an account, and take the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, the Sacredness Survey, and the Disgust Scale survey.   The results will be quite revealing, and it shouldn’t be hard at all to imagine that your moral reactions to challenging situations is the product of evolutionary forces. 

These may sound like snarky over-generalizations, but new empirical research shows that people are more prone to project their own ethical judgments onto God and attribute them to him than any other agents.  That is, when people are asked to make estimations of the ethical views of other humans and of God, they are most egocentric about God—whatever they think is wrong, it just so happens that God does too.  And whatever they think is morally right, it just so happens that God endorses that too, even when their own views about what is right or wrong change.  Claiming that your moral judgments have a divine foundation amounts to little more than dressing up one’s instinctual or visceral reactions and giving them a supernatural stamp of approval.    

Epley, Converse, Delbosc, Monteleone, and Cacioppo  conducted a series of surveys and studies to get people to give estimations of the moral judgments of others.  In one case, people were asked to predict the views of people whose moral beliefs are well known, like George Bush’s, and people whose views are not well-known like Barry Bonds.  They were also asked to speculate about God’s views.  Other studies they conducted found ways to bring out the subjects’ moral views and then test the subject’s estimations of God’s beliefs.  The researchers even devised a way to map the regions of the brain that were most active during thinking about other people, self, and God. 

What they found was incredibly revealing.  It turns out that it you’re a liberal, then God is too.  If you’re a Republican, then so is God.  If you are opposed to abortion, or same-sex marriage, so is God.  Subjects consistently made the most egocentric attributions to God.  No matter what their views were, God shared them across the board.  But these same subjects would not do that when making estimations of the moral views of other humans.  Even fMRI scans showed that when people were thinking about God’s beliefs the brain activity was most similar to that when they were reflecting on their own views, in contrast to areas of the brain that were active when subjects thought about other humans’ beliefs.  Who would have thought that God is just like me, no matter who I am or what I believe?  How could that be?  Maybe it’s because God is imaginary?    

The authors say,  

In both nationally representative and more local samples, people's own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God's beliefs than with estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 1–4). Manipulating people's beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God's beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one's own beliefs and God's beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person's beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God's beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person's beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God's beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one's own existing beliefs.

What this suggests, of course, is that people don’t really get their moral judgments from God at all, despite their insistence that all morality comes from God.  There’s too much variation in what different people think they are getting from God.  The arrow is really going the other way—God (the imaginary being) gets all of his views from people.  And one of the reasons that it’s so easy to attribute so many conflicting ethical judgments to God is that the sources of information about God’s views like the Bible are so hopelessly vague, scattered, and contradictory.  People were much less likely to attribute their own views to people like Bush or Obama because we actually know what they think about the issues.  But the vagaries of religious doctrines surrounding God make him a more or less blank slate for people to write themselves upon. 

In one of the most revealing studies, the researchers manipulated the subject’s moral views about some topic by having them write and deliver speeches for or against some position.  The subjects’ attitudes about the position varied in parallel with the position they were assigned to defend not suprisingly.  When you have to actually think hard about the other side, you tend to soften your stance or change your mind.  Have them deliver a speech in favor of the death penalty and their views shifted in favor of it, and vice versa.  And when they were tested before and after the manipulation, it became clear that their assessment of God’s view of the position shifted too.  According to the subjects, God (and the subject) favored the death penalty more before the subject wrote and delivered a speech opposed to it, and then God’s view of it shifted against it afterwards along with the subject’s. 

It’s very difficult not to be cynical about what this is suggesting.  Apparently when believers make declarations about God’s moral judgments, what that really means is something like, “Whatever I happen to be thinking at the moment about what is right and wrong, well, that’s what God wants.”  Or, “not only do I hold the correct moral views, but mine are endorsed by the creator of the universe himself.”  And sometimes even, “If you disagree with me, then that means you’ll be punished for eternity in hell.”   Furthermore, it pretty clear that if someone thinks that they’ve got divine sanction for their peculiar list of moral rights and wrongs, they are not going to be receptive to the suggestion that they could be wrong, or that there could be subtleties in the issue that they are missing, or that they might come to have a more sophisticated and intelligent view if they reflected on the topic with an open mind.  But there’s no need for an open mind or any constructive reflection on your views when you’ve got God on your side and he’s already settled the issue once and for all. 

There’s a form of moral narcissism going on when believers righteously proclaim God’s will.  They aren’t offering a moral opinion with some reasons to support them—they are issuing God’s own commandments.  Their views are views of the almighty creator of the universe.  Take heed or burn for eternity.  But we must listen closely because my/God’s views are subject to change at any time. 

The view that morality comes from God suggests that there is a single source of infallible moral guidance, and that ultimately the responsibility for figuring out what is right and wrong is not on our shoulders.  Our position is merely to be obedient to God’s higher authority.  So the appeal to God’s authority to settle moral questions effectively cuts off any real and careful analysis of the vital details.  Our job isn’t to figure out what is right and wrong, after all, it’s just to do what God tells us.  So what’s particularly dangerous here is how a set of unreflective moral intuitions are getting promoted to the status of divine command with the introduction of God into the picture.  If we were realistic and conceived of moral problems as falling squarely on our shoulders to solve with the resources we have, we would give them the sort of in depth consideration they deserve and we’d work harder to figure out what makes some things right and some of wrong.