Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ad hominem: Your Sins Keep You from Seeing God

I'm recycling this post from 2007.  This guy put his finger on something:

A group of philosophers sympathetic with the Christian take on things have constructed a complicated and technical account of God beliefs and their source in human cognition known as reformed epistemology. On the view, espoused by Plantinga and Wolterstorff and widely cited and supported in recent years, humans are endowed by God with an innate faculty for sensing God under the right circumstances. This sensus divinitatus is one aspect of a properly functioning cognitive and belief forming system in humans. When it is not corrupted by the invasive noetic effects of sin, this faculty produces a belief in God that is immediate, direct, and non-inferentially justified. That is, a belief in God is properly basic according to the reformed epistemologists. It is not supported by any other independent or more fundamental facts. It cannot be justified on the basis of other beliefs. Rather, it’s axiomatic like the law of non-contradiction or the identity of indiscernibles. The sensus divinitatus will manifest itself in a variety of ways—when you see a sweeping vista of majestic mountaintops, or when your first child is born, or upon pondering the vastness and magnificence of the universe in the night sky.

Misinterpreting these feelings of the divine as indicators of a non-Christian God as a Hindu might, or suppressing them and denying that God is manifest in experience are all the by-products of a sinful nature. Doubters, skeptics, and deniers—anyone who doesn’t buy into the Reformed Epistemology picture—have all had their God given God detectors corrupted, co-opted, and distorted by sin. What they need, of course, is the salvation of Jesus to cleanse them of their immorality and to restore the proper function of their belief faculties. Then they will see that they were not right with God before. And then they will have properly basis religious experience of God. So the view has a the tidy way to deal with criticisms and legitimate objections. No objection to the whole scheme can have any merit because it arises from doubt, which is really just wickedness. If you had some experiences that seemed to have profound religious significance, like any normal person you would wonder about alternative explanations. Could this just be a weird artifact of my neurology? I wonder what natural explanation there could be for this strange disassociation? Maybe I ate something bad? The full-blown theistic supernatural explanation is one possibility. But according to Reformed Epistemology any suspicion that you have that it might have been something natural is really the result of your innately evil nature and the taint that sin has placed on your ability to think straight. They position undercuts any objections with an ad hominem attack on the moral character of the questioner. 

The whole scheme is also clever (and insidious) for inventing a notion of private evidence that shouldn’t be held up for any public scrutiny by someone who has doubts. Once you’re in the special club, you’re provided with “self-authenticating witness of the holy spirit” that gives you perfect, unassailable assurance about your God doctrine no matter what empirical questions or doubts may arise. Ordinarily, evidence is something that is sharable and public. The prosecuting attorney displays the gun that was the murder weapon for everyone in the court, the dentist looks at X-rays, and your mechanic points to the leaking oil around a gasket as evidence that there is a problem. But this special God feeling isn’t like that; it’s just a feeling you have that something’s got to be true, so it can’t be shared with anyone else. Plantinga and some of the people in this camp suggest that the earnest Christian in this situation ought to consider alternative explanations for their experience. Many properly basic beliefs, including the God one presumably, are defeasible. If you have the experiences, and if your conviction that that’s really God your feeling persists after you have scrutinized the belief and reflected on what might be causing it, then you will have a warranted, and true belief that there is a God.

Needless to say, the notion of private evidence here is deeply problematic. Imagine an IRS agent telling you that she’s got self-authenticating, private evidence that you can’t see that you owe the government an extra $20,000 tax dollars. Imagine a doctor telling you that she’s got self-authenticating evidence that you’ve got cancer, but the evidence can’t be grasped by anyone who doesn’t already believe it. Or imagine your husband telling you that he’s got special, private, self-authenticating evidence that you’ve been cheating on him. Then suppose furthermore that they assure you that their conclusion is right because they have thought long and hard about it and considered other possibilities. Evidence that's private isn't really evidence at all and a mere feeling that something just must be true, no matter how strong or persistent, is never enough to give it warrant. 

Here’s a model of human rationality and religious belief that is much more accurate. Humans are endowed by evolution with a remarkably effective set of problem solving skills that can be group loosely under the general heading “reason.” In the right circumstances, our reason allows us to devise complicated and elegant solutions to challenges, make accurate inferences and predictions, and arrive at many well-justified and true beliefs. We manage to cure diseases like polio and land people on the moon. But our cognitive systems are kludgey and imperfect. They’re strapped together with disparate functions and tools that were available at various stages in a long, convoluted evolutionary history. Sometimes they don’t track the truth at all, like when you have an attack of claustrophobia, or you can’t bear to even look at a dish that once made you sick when you were a child. Sometimes our cognitive faculties overreact, mislead, underestimate, or misjudge. 

Our fancier faculties of reason are also often overwhelmed by a variety of emotional, psychological, and biological forces that erode our ability to reason well and see the truth. One legacy of our evolutionary history appears to be a powerful disposition towards religious belief, experiences, and feelings. Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker have recently argued that natural selection may have endowed us with a sort of mind-attribution module. Construing other organisms behavior as the product of the planning and goals within their minds, whether they really have them or not, would be an effective mechanism for anticipating and projecting the behaviors of potential predators and prey. But we’re just built to take it too far and endow everything with a mind—the wind, the ocean, the starry sky, and the world itself. 

In an earlier post, I called it the Urge—a powerful and seductive need we have to be religious. Completely aside from the factual question of God, it is obvious to anyone who observes humans and their religious activities that we desperately want there to be a God and we will adopt the most contorted gymnastics of reasoning to rationalize the belief. Even if there are some theists with good reasons, there are far more with sloppy, fallacy ridden, biased grounds that they offer for their beliefs. And in lots of these cases, it’s not really the poor reasoning that is offered in defense of someone’s God belief that led them to believe at all. More often it is the case that people have the belief first as a result of the Urge’s infiltration of their consciousness, and then they back fill that conclusion with some superficial reasons. So the Urge is really the dark side of your nature that threatens to corrupt your more noble aspects. It’s the alluring, siren call of religion itself, not sin, that will co-opt reason’s ability to see the world in an accurate light. 

Staying on the straight and narrow will require resisting the temptation of religion’s easy, emotionally satisfying answers to the biggest metaphysical questions. Living up to your potential to reason clearly and evaluate the evidence objectively demands that you be constantly vigilant against seduction of religion’s false comforts.