Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Religious experiences - and alien abduction


Thanks for the very interesting comments on the previous post.

As you are not all persuaded, I thought I would develop the argument a bit by means of a further analogy.

Very many people claim to have been abducted by aliens. In the U.S. it's an astonishing number. Aren't these people justified in taking their experiences at face value? And aren't we justified in supposing, on the basis of their testimony, that at least some of these subjects have indeed met, been probed by, etc. aliens?

I think not. There are obvious reasons to be sceptical.

First, the power of suggestion is clearly often involved in these experiences. For example, very many abductees claim to have been abducted by a flying saucer. Trouble is, the saucer story originates with a pilot back in 1947. Kenneth Arnold was asked by a reporter what he saw and he said the craft were boomerang shaped and moved like saucers skipped across a pond (they bounced along). The reporter said they looked like saucers, and immediately people started reporting saucers, and have been reporting them ever since. Here is excellent evidence that reports of saucers are at least largely down to the power of suggestion. People see something, then interpret it as a saucer, because that's what they expect to see. They even describe the saucers in great detail - the little windows, people looking out, etc.

Second, there's the contradictory nature of the stories. Either we are being visited by very many alien races, or else many of these reports must be mistaken. Sometimes, even witnesses of the same event report it differently. Consider Betty and Barney Hill - one of the most famous abductee cases ever. They described the aliens differently. Betty said they had big noses dark hair and were human looking. Barney said no hair or noses and wrap-around eyes.

Thirdly, there's the cultural and geographical specificity of the stories. For example, the reports of saucers and abductions pretty much stop at the Mexican border. In Mexico, you get other entirely different weird and wacky claims.

Fourth, given what we know about human beings, their tendency to have weird experiences, etc. means the fact that we find such reports gives us little reason to suppose they are true.

Fifth, there's very good empirical evidence against the abductee hypothesis. For a start, other civilizations are going to just too far away for regular travel here to be a possibility (even assuming they have close-to-light-speed space ships).

Sixth, there's not much corroborating evidence. No alien implants removed from beneath the skin, few physical traces of where the craft landed, etc. We just have people's word for what happened.

Now compare religious experiences of the Judeo-Christian God. I'll go through the same points backwards:

6. There's little or no corroborating evidence for religious experience. We just have to take people's word for it.

5. There's very good empirical evidence against the good-God hypothesis - namely the evidential problem of evil (see my The God of Eth, if you are inclined to think the evidence anything less than very powerful indeed).

4. Given what we know about human beings and their tendency to experience weird and wacky things, we should expect such experiences anyway, so the fact people do have them doesn't give us much grounds for supposing there is any such being.

3. Religious experiences are highly geographically and culturally specific - North of the Med, people experience the Virgin Mary, South of the Med, Mohammad, etc.

2. Religious experiences contradict each other. We have experiences which are interpreted to be of one God, of many Gods (the ancient Greeks, Norse, Romans, etc.), that there is no God (many, if not all, Buddhists). Some of these Gods are cruel and vengeful, some demand blood, some are loving and kind, and so on. Take a step back and look at the sweep of human history, and you find a quite extraordinary range of such experiences. Clearly, then, most of them must be substantially deceptive.

1. The power of suggestion - clearly shapes many of these experiences, and largely explains the cultural specificity.

Now, to this, the religious will typically say (and some of you have said):

"Ah but despite the differences between these experiences, there's a core that's the same - namely that there is single, good God. We just experience this being in different ways (like flatlanders!)"

But this is pretty obviously false (and it doesn't become true by being endlessly repeated!) The most we can say is these experiences all purport to reveal that there is "something more". But as to what this "something" is, well, they disagree on pretty much everything (unless, of course, you gerrymander the set of experiences under consideration - e.g. by air-brushing out the Norse, Greek and Roman pantheons, the Mayan divinities, etc.).

There are at least two further, additional problems for those who place their trust in religious experience.

First, the experience is via a mysterious faculty. At least the abductees are relying on their five senses, which we do know exist, and are pretty reliable.

Second, the contradictory nature of abductee experiences can at least be accounted for by saying there are many alien races. Those who believe in the Judeo-Christian God cannot similarly explain the diverse nature of religious experiences by saying that there are many gods.

So now explain to me why I, or you, should take religious experiences significantly more seriously than stories of alien abduction (which I consider a bit of a joke, frankly).

Indeed, seems to me that, just as someone who thinks they have experienced being abducted by aliens should be sceptical about their own experience, so someone who believes they have experienced the Judeo-Christian God should be similarly sceptical, and for much the same reasons.

60 comments:

Stephen Law said...

I didn't specifically address John Uebersax's comments on an earlier post. This post does address many of them. But I should just add a quick comment on this one:

Stephen said (1) expect people to report mystical experiences anyway,

John's reply: by analogy, false-positive diagnoses do not mean there are no true-positives; they merely reduces the unconditional posterior probability that a given positive diagnosis is correct.

Stephen's comment. My point is not that there are many false positives. It is that, given what we know of human beings, we should expect a large number of such wacky experiences anyway, whether or not there's an truth to them. So, that there is a large number does not give *any* support to the claim that they are true.

Compare: I claim that flowers growing is evidence for the activity of fairies. Showing that we should expect flowers to grow anyway, whether or not there are fairies, entirely demolishes my evidence. Entirely, note.

What you need to do is show that - even given what we know about human beings gullibility, tendency to have wacky experiences, etc. etc. - there's something about religious experience that we shouldn't expect to observe if they weren't at least sometimes accurate.

Then you'd have a bit of evidence.

anticant said...

Stephen, I know you are ever hopeful, but I don't think you are going to convince anybody here to change their beliefs or disbeliefs.

Expecting credulous people to be sceptical is like expecting water to turn into wine.

eneftb said...

Errmmm ... Religious experiences are not alien abductions. There is very little resemblance. Atheistic/Naturalistic experiences and alien abduction - now that's more like it. Well, they are both largely modern phenomena, mostly happen to complete geeks, etc. etc. What do you think? Do I win?

James Bond said...

Look Stephen - they ARE NOT WACKY EXPERIENCES. Based on your cultural context, in 21st century Britain, mystical experiences seem outlandish and improbable. but this is completely a result of the historical and geographical circumstances you find yourself in, where rationalism is king, and people do not have an adequate epistemology with which to put inner experience into a larger phenomenological context.

Modern atheism is an historical anomaly, humanly speaking. Rather more wacky in fact, is this whole scientistic paradigm itself, if only our cognitive frame could expand just slightly wider to beyond the last 100 years in Northern Europe!!!

Alien abductions bare very little resemblance to genuine mystical experiences.

By the way, mystical traditions have a very rigourous system of separating genuine mystical experiences from hallucinations/flights of fancy/psychotic outbursts etc. That is because they actually really care if they're from God or not! They are based on a system of self-purification based on conformity to a moral hierarchy. Normally, they only happen to spiritual adepts. The mystical path is a process of internal change - subduing the selfish aspects of ones ego, and replacing those aspects with virtues - this, along with meditation, open up new perceptional vistas. It is very real, and means the knowledge arrived at is unsullied, unmuddied, made truly objective, being freed by ones own freedom from egotistic agendas.

(Unlike modern academics, who, with their subjective interpretive projections,are half the time more concerned about making a name for themselves with some novelty than actual finding of truth)

This is something you seem to be overlooking, as you typecast the majority of humanity as wish-fulfilling idiots, in desperate need of saving by 'Enlightenment' thinkers, who will heroically rescue them from their 'delusion' by forcing their own absolutization of their neurotic scepticism onto the poor naive religionists! ;)

I Suppose I'm an occasional contributor said...

Stephen, you said:

"Religious experiences are highly geographically and culturally specific - North of the Med, people experience the Virgin Mary, South of the Med, Mohammad, etc. "

Well, just for your interest, Muslims revere the Virgin Mary too. Get your facts straight. Also, there are millions and millions of Christians (and people from other religions) south of the 'Med'. So, the experiences are religion-specific, specifically, not geographically or culturally specific. But we knew that anyway.

Anyway, it is well within the scope of understanding of say, Islam and Hinduism, that the Christian experience of the Virgin Mary could be a genuine experience of a spiritual being ... so it is not clear why you think these experiences of religious figures are mutually exclusive. Both Muslims and Hindus accept Jesus as a prophet-type figure. Yes, the Muslims call him "Isa" and the Hindus something else. This kind of thing is normal considering there are different languages. ;)

As for Zeus, or other 'extinct' gods, this is where the cultural and linguistic influence can be seen. 'Jupiter' for example, was simply the Roman name for the 'god' who had the role of Zeus in the Greek pantheon. Philosophical terms and trends differ according to geography too, but many of the same conclusions are reached.

You say:

"Religious experiences contradict each other. We have experiences which are interpreted to be of one God, of many Gods (the ancient Greeks, Norse, Romans, etc.), that there is no God (many, if not all, Buddhists). Some of these Gods are cruel and vengeful, some demand blood, some are loving and kind, and so on. "

Here is a statement from a mainstream Hindu website (why not actually read the post by 'occasional-glancer-at '?):

'Hindus believe in one God, one humanity and one world. People with different language, different cultures have understood this one God in their own way. This is why we are very tolerant of all religions, as each has its own path to this one God.'

There are numerous examples of very similar statements from other religions under my post as 'occasional glancer-at'.

As I said, most religions (including Buddhists of all types) experience that beyond phenomena (be it religious, 'gods/angels') or other ('roads, trees etc.) there is an Absolute Reality, who most religions call God - that everything else is subservient to.

And you say:

Now, to this, the religious will typically say (and some of you have said):

"Ah but despite the differences between these experiences, there's a core that's the same - namely that there is single, good God. We just experience this being in different ways (like flatlanders!)"

 But this is pretty obviously false (and it doesn't become true by being endlessly repeated!) The most we can say is these experiences all purport to reveal that there is "something more". But as to what this "something" is, well, they disagree on pretty much everything (unless, of course, you gerrymander the set of experiences under consideration - e.g. by air-brushing out the Norse, Greek and Roman pantheons, the Mayan divinities, etc.)

But ... No, they in fact agree on almost everything.

The whole point is that Roman pantheons, Mayan etc., if they have any concrete existence at all as beings, are subservient to this Ultimate God in most classical religious conceptions.

Islamic - La Ilaha IllaLah - there are no deities except God - there is not any being really worthy of the name God, except for the Ultimate Reality, the Real God to whom all else is subservient. But it is not a denial that spiritual phenomena and beings exist that could be wrongly construed as gods - just that they are absolutely subservient to the One God, who alone is worthy of worship.

Also, Roman religion is not notable for its mystics (name one) - it mostly appears to have been a state-related Imperial religion to bolster Roman self-image. Many many Romans were in fact Manichaeans, Jews etc.

And people have different conceptions of what 'good' means. In the Islamic conception, good for God can effectively mean "Existence" - in fact the concept is not necessarily there in the Christian conception - Muslims perceive anything that God does (i.e the whole of creation) as being ultimately 'good' because it is from this being, God, with ultimate Will and Power, who provides a moral paradigm for us to operate under - it doesn't mean that God in Essence is limited by our personal conceptions of 'good', which are very subjective anyway.

In reading this article, you will find out that most pantheons, (Greek, Ancient Egyptian etc.) were subservient to a single God in these cultures understandings. The 'gods' were simply contingent 'aspects' or 'manifestations' of divinity. http://www.nawawi.org/downloads/article2.pdf . If you pay attention, you will find that through the etymology of names of God across languages, it is clear that they are just differing linguistic expressions of more or less the same thing - i.e understandings and experience universal to humanity.

If you refuse to look at the evidence, how can there be meaningful dialogue?

You also say:

"First, the experience is via a mysterious faculty. At least the abductees are relying on their five senses, which we do know exist, and are pretty reliable."

Tell me, Stephen, what is the entity that perceives that the five senses are reliable, gives them credence, and uses data garnered from them to make statements about reality? Is it the five-senses themselves? No! Can you prove the entity exists 'scientifically'? No! But it exists necessarily, I'm sure you will agree. And don't pass the buck to the brain. I'm talking about the first person reality of perception that specifies 'brain'. It includes ones apperception. I don't understand the big problem I would assume you have with the immaterial soul. But, just for your information, this is the not-so-mysterious faculty that perceives God.

Also. You seem convinced that your 'God of Eth' is this powerful argument. I beg to differ. I read your academic version and failed to feel the impact. :) It is slightly absurd to be honest.

Mean, but you should know.

After all, how do you know that the Evil God who created the perception of the Good God was not created by an even Better God who created the Evil God to achieve a specific purpose within his ultimately good purpose? Within your system, this works perfectly well! The whole thing is very weak.

So, you can imagine an evil God. Who cares? How do you know the orange is not some other colour? Well, if you are colour-blind, perhaps you think it is!

I fail to see the grand implication ... one may well have a delusion that God who seems 'good' is actually 'evil' ... but it sounds slightly schizophrenic, doesn't it? Also, you seem to have this idea that Theists have a uniform idea of what God's goodness is like. They do not. It does not differ just between religions ... it differs between individuals, just as all perception does.

Stephen Law said...

Hi anticant

I am not so pessimistic as you.

True, few can be argued out of belief just like that. But, in some cases, you can begin to break the spell, if only slowly.

My guess is that those posting here suggesting that I "get my facts straight" (I have - who has witnessed the Virgin Mary in North Africa recently), and focussing on little details (often not terribly relevant details - so what if Hindus are monotheists?) while ignoring the bigger picture, know, deep down, that there's something very suspect indeed about what they believe.

But that's just my guess - I might be wrong.

Stephen Law said...

Hi occasional contributor

You said:

"After all, how do you know that the Evil God who created the perception of the Good God was not created by an even Better God who created the Evil God to achieve a specific purpose within his ultimately good purpose? Within your system, this works perfectly well! The whole thing is very weak."

I have not been able to figure out exactly what your objection is, here. Can you spell it out more? thanks...

Another one said...

Errmmmm , 'who has witnessed the virgin mary in north africa recently?' , Stephen asks :)

Well perhaps the Coptic Christians in Egypt don't you think?

The Hindus being monotheistic is hugely significant - their essential monotheism, and those of others, shows that perception of relative spiritual phenomena is universally seen as being subservient to, dependant on, ultimate spiritual reality, the One God or Ultimate Reality.

No, people do not secretly suspect that their beliefs are ... suspect. There is nothing suspect about belief in a transcendent and absolute source of relative reality, especially when people everywhere perceive this as properly basic knowledge that clarifies the nature of everything else in existence.

Oh, and last time I checked, there wasn't much of a method of training to have alien abductions. Or do they have alien abductions monasteries, zawiyyas etc. ? No, I thought not. Your analogy seems not so strong.

Terence said...

Stephen, what do you think of modern psychological research into belief in God? For example, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200512/god-accident

Occasional said...

"I have not been able to figure out exactly what your objection is, here. Can you spell it out more? thanks..."

You're a clever chap, I'm sure you can work it out for yourself. :)

Stephen Law said...

You are rather missing the point, I feel. Of course Egyptian Christians will experience the Virgin Mary rather than, say, the Buddha or Vishnu. I find it odd how you focus in on these little details, and ignore the major point which is the obvious geographical and cultural specificity of religious experiences. After all, there are one or two alien abductions reported even in Mexico, aren't there? That doesn't undermine the point about the geographical specificity of abduction experiences, does it?

Of course the Mayans, African shamans, Innuits, etc, agree that there's "one spiritual reality". Only some populate it with many characters, others with none, and of course they invoke characters of many diverse types (nice ones, nasty ones). This is all pretty obvious and undeniable, I would have thought. So, very many of these experiences must be to a significant extent deceptive, right? That's the point which some of you, it seems to me, are trying very hard not to acknowledge.

Not quite sure what support you think "training" gives to the credibility of religious experiences.

But in any case, there are, I believe, training courses etc. you can go on to increase your chances of experiencing aliens (where to go, what to look for, etc.), or to retrieve "memories" of abductions. There's also, of course, of training in all sorts of bullshit spirtualist techniques, from mind-reading to aura-detecting, to spiritual healing, to communing with angels or fairies, etc.

I can't see that the addition of "training" lends much credibility to any of these experiences or techniques. Can you?

Stephen Law said...

Perhaps I should add that, even if there *were* some feature of religious experiences that tended to crop up across different cultures, that wouldn't necessarily be much evidence that these experiences were substantially veridical.

For example, if such experiences tended to feature a cosmic father figure, that would not be particularly surprising, whether or not such a cosmic father figure exists or not.

After all, the fact that many of the aliens reported by abductees share a penchant for tinfoil suits and anal probing doesn't really lend much credibility to these reports, does it?

These commonalities say rather more about those reporting such experiences than they do about the reports' reliability.

Stephen Law said...

Terence - I am v interested in such research, obviously!

Alien Contactee said...

Some day you will be humbled by a truth you never expected to hear.

I have experienced ridicule by such words as yours and their hurtful nature for a very long time and the pain never goes away. Consequently I must admit that I could only skim your article as to avoid certain statements that started to sound too familiar.

Stealth is an alien’s greatest tool. They use it while hiding in our airspace and they certainly used it in regard to abductees since they made the abductees trek impossible to believe. "The kookier sounding the better" is a design of theirs as to hide their existence and presence.

Abductions have ceased and there haven't been any notable ones since early 2004. What is going on now is something called "Induction". Now that's kookier yet. How do we even begin to talk about aliens living and dwelling in the spirit and not the body with abductees now (tagged of sorts). We can't. Many abductees are experiencing full blown possession. This is the alien’s newest agenda but with all agendas, it will cease soon as well.

You do not need to entrench yourself in alien abduction but you do need to become more informed and veer away from the grocery store rag types since such absolutely did exist.

One of my quotes is, "Aliens never instill any thoughts or pain in an individual unless medical science already has a name for it". That's their stealth.

aka: alien abductee
"Distraught and disheartened by man and his words he chooses to use while sitting in ignorance".

Anonymous said...

well that was definitely posted by someone on Stephen's side! How much did you pay him, Dr. Law?

Alien Contactee said...

I'm a her, not a him.

Alien Contactee said...

Scratch my last statement. Thinking about it, I realize you couldn't have been referring to me but rather a previous comment.

Me again. said...

Stephen, we all agree that many spiritual experiences are deceptive, as I have said earlier. This does not diminish my argument.

As for your statement : 'Not quite sure what support you think "training" gives to the credibility of religious experiences.'

Well, the same credibility that training gives to any other discipline. If it was just the average guy in the street having a major mystical experience, we would be quite justified, 9 times out of 10, in assuming it was some sort of major delusion.

However, the training of a Sufi, Buddhist, or Hindu, involves first of all, a very rigourous system of what one might call 'character-trait selection' - one restrains one's instinct towards selfishness, and what one finds within oneself of irascibility, resentful envy, rancour, avarice, arrogance, conceit, selfish delusion, ostentation, love of prestige and leadership, talking excessively, preoccupation with one's appearance, boasting, 'long' hopes and greed, - and replaces them with their opposites. As such, all the qualities that enable most people to have delusions are understood for what they are, and removed.

Through this process of self-purification, the heart, or soul (our terribly biased society and its linguistic products doesn't offer us anything other than these wishy-washy sounding terms to call it unfortunately) becomes capable of perceiving what is beyond the instrumental-relational world of the ego-project, the 'material' world. Through meditation (which requires a lot of training to master), the material world is seen in a new light - not so 'material' after all, but a manifestation of the beauty and power, of the infinite attributes of the Absolute, the Ultimate Reality, God. And eventually the adept can pass beyond the perception of multiplicity entirely and see the absolute unity of being, everything dependent on its Infinite source, and in some way 'saying' something about that infinite source. Everything becomes mere 'appearances' of this One Reality, who 'infinitely transcends the sites of manifestation'. The unity of this method, more or less, across the religions, is another important aspect of my argument.

If you think that such training does not add to the credibility of the experiences, I must say I am inclined to worry about you.

Anyway, as for the article that Terrence shared:

Thoughts on the article:
What we are left with is an evolutionary interpretive hypotheses superimposed onto our natural pre-disposition of belief that even evolutionary theory tell us what we should have ... so what of the evolutionary theorists themselves? It would seem , that on their own terms, it is in fact them who are the evolutionary 'accident', with their lack of belief in God.

The belief that the entirety of consciousness is contained in the brain in fact has much evidence against it. In fact, all we see in the brain is a chemical con-commitant correspondence with actual experience - as in, we have experiences, and see that when we have them, the brain itself reacts in different ways. While we can 'trigger' physical states with the brain, there is no proof, and there can logically speaking be no 'scientific' proof, that the brain is the source of experience.

It is only through the first-person experience that we can trigger the brain to trigger anything anyway.
Our apperceptive reality is ever-present - and always has primacy. In fact, there is more evidence to suggest that the brain is entirely subject to the trigger of personal experience - the brain is a 'filter' of consciousness in so far as it interacts with the world of instumental-relations, i.e the physical world. 'Personal PC for the soul' is much closer to the mark.

Unfortunately, this clashes with the dominant paradigm (how can Scientism account for a soul!?) and so will never be given credence by the majority of the 'elite' priesthood of followers of scientism in the Western academic world, until something changes.

However, they should be aware that their own theory is radically incomplete, and fallacious even in its incomplete form. In fact, they'd largely rather pass over the issue of consciousness itself in favour of secondary phenomena (behavioural psychology for example) Consciousness is an uncomfortable subject for them, and rightly so. How people can take seriously the idea that the brain, that we only specify as an entity through meaning, is the source of consciousness needs to consider this: what is the nature then, of the brain itself? If you say 'it is a physical entity' one must ask - what does that mean - and does that account for the multifarious meaning and experience you say it is the 'source' of. No! The nature of the brain as an entity is specified by the first-person experience of mankind. Meaning has primacy. The alternative is fallacious - reality becomes a projection of ultimate meaningless, which is exactly nonsense in a meaningful world.

Terence said...

me again wrote:

"The belief that the entirety of consciousness is contained in the brain in fact has much evidence against it."

Would you mind explaining specifically what that "much evidence" is?

It seems to me that brain research has proved beyond any doubt that consciousness is an operation of the brain, and that manipulation of the brain (via injuries, illness, chemicals, electricity, etc.) can alter (permanently or temporarily) brain function, including consciousness.

Stephen Law said...

Hello "me again" - we are clearly very much worried about each other!

not him again said...

Terence - Predictably you either didn't read, or failed to understand my post. I agree with you that 'manipulation of the brain (via injuries, illness, chemicals, electricity, etc.) can alter (permanently or temporarily) brain function, including consciousness' - although in the case of consciousness this merely means altering a physical concomitant of consciousness.

Why? Well, read the post again (more carefully), and you'll see that I'm saying that there is an undeniable qualitative primacy to what I call the first-person reality of consciousness - that is, the actual experience of consciousness (yes, that wonderful experience we are all constantly having) - which is the 'process' that actually abstracts the meaning necessary to make the misguided observation statement 'all consciousness is contained in the brain'.

Do you see? Perhaps you can't. It is, nevertheless, clear as day. It might help you to try to locate within yourself your apperceptivity. Experience actually being the being who itself knows that it exists, and perhaps you will have some luck in coming to terms with what I am talking about. It is quite an effective cure for naive realism. But even on your dominant weltanschauung sheep-instinct terms, I invite you to look into the field further - you will find that there is a good deal of uncertainty within the subject even amongst self-proclaimed robots like your good self.

And Stephen - I'm just enjoying a sports day off of atheist-hounding. Why are you worried? :)

Well, that's very honest of you.

Actually I respect Stephen for at least initiating a not completely-one-sided conversation, which is more than many of you other non-religious folk are open enough to do.

Look ye all at Anthony Flew, Anthony Flew. He saw in the end too.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Stephen,

I must commend you on your saintly patience. Engaging with this lot must take a kind of stamina I can't even imagine.

I might petition the pope to have you beatified or cannonized. Of course, you would have to be dead first. Why do they never saint a living person? Suppose there is no telling what they are going to do next. Like that wacky, nut-job mother teresa.

I think I'm going to have to side with Anticant on this one, I don't see any of this lot swaying. Best of luck though.

Eric said...

One of the most commonly noted characteristics of religious experiences is their "ineffable" nature. If this is so, would it be so surprising that people with different sets of culturally influenced beliefs interpret such experiences through the (by definition inadequate) conceptual structures that are endemic to their respective cultures? One could think analogously about the different cultural expressions of music, which is also often said to express the ineffable. This seems to place 1, 2 and 3 in a new, and not quite so damning light.

With respect to 4, it seems to me that while people tend to experience wacky things, like alien abductions, there is something different about religious experiences. First, they are as close to universal as you can get, with respect to both place and time. The reported content varies, but as I stated above, if the experience is ineffable, this shouldn't surprise us. Things such as alien abductions and the like, on the other hand, are not nearly as common. Second, alien abductions are viewed as wacky in large part (but of course, not only) because they are so rare (relative to the population of the U.S., say) while religious experiences decidedly are not. Many religious people, from a variety of religious backgrounds, believe they have had religious experiences, so the claim "I had a religious experience" has, at least, prima facie plausibility in a way that alien abductions do not. Third, it is rarely the case that a well educated, respected member of the community reports an alien abduction, while many highly respected and very well educated people claim to have religious experiences. I don't think that any of these three points above is logically compelling (i.e. something can be universally experienced, considered normal, and treated as "real" by authorities, and still false), but I do think that combined they make a strong case that alien abductions are not properly in the same category as religious experiences.

With respect to 5, while I'd of course agree that the problem of evil is significant, it seems to me that, since it is an evidential objection and not a logical one, the reality of evil is at least consistent with the existence of an all-good god (or an all evil god, as you point out). But it's not as strong a bit of evidence against god as the empirical evidence we have against alien abductions, for a number of reasons. First, we would expect empirical data to confirm (or at least to support) the alien abduction claim in a way we would never expect it to confirm or support claims of god's existence or nature, for the very simple reason that the former concerns events that take place within our world, and are thus subject to its laws, while the other concerns, by definition anyway, the supernatural. Second, it is often argued that evil is derivative in the sense that it takes what is good and distorts it: freedom is good, but it can be abused; still it is a good that is misused, and not an evil. This, it seems to me, is the problem with your god of Eth thought experiment.

I think the problem with 6 is related to the first problem with 5, viz. we have no reason to expect the sorts of corroborating evidence from religious experiences that we would from alien abductions. It seems to me that this is like asking for corroborating evidence that I'm seeing blue, or feeling bored that would be similar to the sort of evidence one would espect to corroborate an alien abduction.

I apologize for the long post! Off topic, I want to add that I enjoy reading this blog tremendously! Also, going back to the last post, how about this: Imagine coming here to the States to debate Plantinga! Can anyone out there make that happen?!

Enigman said...

My guess is that those [...] ignoring the bigger picture, know, deep down, that there's something very suspect indeed about what they believe.
You believe, I take it, Stephen (correct me if I'm wrong, but lots of atheists do have such a belief, so the point is quite apposite anyway), that the big picture is that there is, in this universe, only the physical particles and fields in relativistic spacetime that are studied by physicists, and that all else (biochemistry, psychology, politics) is really just about relatively large chunks of that.

But (to take the obvious example) thinking is important. Coming to the right decision is important. It should not just be a random event, choosing what to think about the real world of real people. One could be irrational, but that would be wrong. And thinking rationally, making a responsible decision on the basis of the evidence, that cannot be something that you are bound to do, in a totally determined way, if it is something that you might neglect to do, could be at fault for not doing. Deep down, you feel the very real imperative of Think! The ought in thought. And ought implies can. You want to change the minds of some of those reading this. You hope that they are not bound to be as they are, in a deterministic universe. But the only alternative to determinism, in this physical universe (of which we know a vast amount, thanks to modern physics), is randomness (if there is another alternative, it is odd that we don't know about it in physics), and how could mere randomness be the cause of the difference between a moral act (thinking properly) and an immoral act (thinking improperly)? How could it be that we should try to get result A, rather than B, when it is just random whether A or B?

So, the very rationality that you are fighting for here presupposes something that is neither of the two options available under physicalism (determinism or randomness). Deep down, you know you have a problem! How could you have a problem? You are just physical particles and fields. They are meaningless. They don't have problems, just positions. But you have problems. We all do. And that is a problem for your position. Now, it does not refute your position (although it might be put forward as such a refutation). And it certainly does not make the holding of your position irrational, or even unreasonable (this is philosophy after all). But it is prima facie a demonstration that Naturalism (or physicalistic atheism) is incoherent, from which it follows that all the evidence available to us at any time must be evidence between the alternatives, of which some of the most established and verified are the various theisms. Religious experiences provide various amounts of evidence (to be interrogated properly) for various kinds of theism.

Now, analytical philosophy is, by your lights, a bit of a joke too (I'll spare you my list, but David Lewis e.g.)... But jokes are a necessity in a world like this (I wish my comments were funnier). So anyway, if I hear a report of an alien abduction, it would be from a strange guy in a pub, or a friend, or on the TV. If the former, duh, if the latter, double duh. Of course. What about the middle one? It's a usually reliable friend who's not going through a difficult time, say. Or it's one of my funnier friends, or one of the sadder ones. It all goes into making this hypothetical report the sort of evidence that it is. Your categories are too blunt, Stephen. It is quite possible to get a report that you would take quite seriously. And the reasons include the following two points (I'll spare you the joining-up): (i) There probably are aliens in this universe since we exist and are capable of space flight; and (ii) every time there is a crime on TV lots of crazy people phone up the police to tell them shit, that does not mean that there is not a criminal out there, and possibly some valuable informants (which is why the police listen to them all, if it is a serious crime (the analogy for the serious crime is your very reliable friend))...

Enigman said...

...incidentally, your 5th point against aliens is weaker than you think (for the following reason), so it does not count against my last counter-scenario. We want to support an exponentially expanding population of voters in relative opulence. About the only conceivable way of doing that is to put self-replicating robots into space, where there is limitless energy and minerals. They can expand faster than we can, and send back some of that as profit, to feed our growth (without our having to do much work, just a few of our experts to keep an eye on things). Unrealistic for us, yes, but the universe is so big that it is not unlikely that some people will have initiated such things (what else would they do) at some time, so it is not particularly unlikely that we are surrounded by such robots.

Why do we not see their factories? Well, their creators would love to read (at their endless leisure) stories of aliens. Maybe by now they are watching the dinosaurs die out, and seeing intelligent aliens on other worlds, behaving in quite original ways. Had the robots arrived in the last few billion years, they may have left this region alone (like a park in a busy city). There are lots of possibilities of course.

So, you do not have that reason to disbelieve your reliable friend. But furthermore, suppose that you were abducted by such robots. (They might have been wearing some facade chosen to suit their abductees, which would explain why they seem different to different abductees, so imagine that; and coincidentally, a similar explanation could account for the diverse nature of religious experiences.) Suppose that it is a normal day for you, you are in good health, etc. Suppose that you self-assess, and just find it all very real (as indeed it is, on this hypothesis). And suppose that you see stuff that is obviously not of this world (not without some equally bizarre conspiracy theory being true). Are you really saying that it would then be irrational of you to change your mind about aliens?

Anonymous said...

The idea of training to recognize mystical experience is interesting. It appears to not involve the mystical sensus divinatus at all until mastery is achieved. This is unlike other training methods I am aware of and sees rather like trying to learn to play a tune on the flute by a succession of graded swimming exercises.

On the other hand given that the training involves encouraging feeling such as openness, charity, love etc it seems little wonder that the experience (when it arrives) tends to feel beneficial. Fine - these procedures may well be beneficial to individuals and society as a whole but they do not prove theism. Meditation and cognitive therapy work well enough. Of course I would discount the more extreme practices involving flagellation fasting and deprivation on the grounds that these are known to encourage altered states anyway.

Anonymous said...

I know several people who gave up on religion and theistic belief. Do we know of anyone who has had a verifiable mystic experience (rendered reputable by means of spiritual training) who has sine converted to atheism? If there are any how do they view their experience now?

Terence said...

not him again said:

"I'm saying that there is an undeniable qualitative primacy to what I call the first-person reality of consciousness - that is, the actual experience of consciousness (yes, that wonderful experience we are all constantly having) - which is the 'process' that actually abstracts the meaning necessary to make the misguided observation statement 'all consciousness is contained in the brain'."

Yes, I did read (and carefully too) what you said . . . and you've kindly repeated it for me.

My question, however, is where is the "much evidence" of consciousness existing outside the brain that you made reference to in your earlier post? What you seem to be saying is that your first-person awareness of being conscious is that evidence. Is that true?

Because if it is, how can you show that this awareness exists outside of -- and isn't simply a by-product of -- the functioning of your brain? After all, any number of manipulations of your brain could easily disturb, change, alter, etc. that first-person awareness.

some guy said...

ANONYMOUS SAID:

"The idea of training to recognize mystical experience is interesting. It appears to not involve the mystical sensus divinatus at all until mastery is achieved. This is unlike other training methods I am aware of and sees rather like trying to learn to play a tune on the flute by a succession of graded swimming exercises. "

No, the sensus divinatus, what the Sufis call the قلب
, the 'heart' is exactly what is being trained the whole time. The moral purification is a system of purifying that very entity, while the meditation training is training its ability to perceive the spiritual world. But spiritual experiences occur all throughout the training - it is just that the more major mystical experiences tend to occur to real adepts.

that pesky Muslim again said...

[please read my capitalizations as italics, I can't work out how to do them ;) ]

Terence said: '...how can you show that this awareness exists outside of -- and isn't simply a by-product of -- the functioning of your brain? After all, any number of manipulations of your brain could easily disturb, change, alter, etc. that first-person awareness.'

Terence, I think we are both approaching this issue from a rather different angle to one another. I am fully aware that consciousness to some extent occurs THROUGH the brain in so far as consciousness is concerned with negotiating the world of time and space, and manipulating it. I am also aware that altering the balance of chemical compounds in a brain via some stimulus or other can sometimes quite radically alter the features of a conscious experience.

However, accepting this as common sense is a world away from claiming that consciousness is a 'by-product' or 'epiphenomenon' of the brain. It is only through the stimulus of objects in an external world that the brain alters - be it a scientist manipulating a subjects brain, or a criminal smashing someone over the head with a hammer, or something rather more pleasant, like having your spouse say 'I love you' to you, and this causing you to feel deep contentment and mutual love.

What I am saying is that it is impossible to seriously maintain that consciousness, that world of meaning we inhabit, exists WITHIN a physical entity, or is ultimately reducible to 'matter', a 'pure physicality' that is itself UNCONSCIOUS. The world of meaning, of consciousness, is obviously on an ontologically irreconcilable plane to 'unconscious matter'. Unconscious matter, 'matter itself' is a theoretical construct that we can clearly never have any evidence for. It is an assumption about the nature of the images we see around us that is entirely based on the anti-metaphysical, anti-spiritual epistemology and ontology that our post-Christian culture bases all of its scientific theories in. I suggest you read Jurgen Habermas, 'KNOWLEDGE AND HUMAN INTERESTS', and Paul Feyeraband's 'AGAINST METHOD' for some fascinating indications of just how influential culture is in determining what kind of scientific hypotheses are given research money, and hence a chance to develop. In Feyerband's book, you will read a quite awesome philosophical deconstruction of our holy 'scientific method'. (Full of holes more like!!! :)

Meaning is the whole content of consciousness. The specification 'matter' cannot be afforded causal primacy when it is logically secondary to meaning.

Saying that consciousness is a by-product of the brain also necessitates a most distasteful solipsism, because it entails that the whole objective world of experience as specified through consciousness is, in reality, a bunch of chemical reactions in a brain. Obviously this is a ludicrous and contradictory proposition since the brain is supposed to exist 'in' the very same objective world that the follower of Scientism has just reduced to a brain. What more eloquent a demonstration of this frankly retarded world-view than that!

Perceptional content can in fact be properly 'reduced' to 'meanings set up in images' understood in the full sense of the word, and perceived by the human soul in first-person consciousness. Yes the brain has a fundamental role in this type of consciousness. It is a kind of interface onto physicality. But the human soul is capable of experiencing far-subtler dimensions of reality than that, which lie well beyond the world of intrumental-relationality.

Buy some faith and a pure intention, and learn to meditate, and you'll find that out.

Not only can it be 'reduced' to 'meanings set up in images' - but this understanding is in fact far more accurate than calling perceptional content 'physicality' for example. This specification tends to come down to no more than a kind of 'real means solid' projection, which we might call de-spiritualised naive-realistic. It also suggests a sort of essential knowledge on the part of the knower that is epistemologically untenable. The images I see are environmental, and they are solid - I can touch them. But naming them 'physical' or 'particles' and asserting that this matches their essential reality - and including that of the perceptional content necessary to make the assertion - is clearly quite fallacious. It is taking a very vague specification that is the result of the result of a very ignorant act of abstraction from abstract images (given definition in a necessarily [for this type of person] self-referential linguistic paradigm) It is a blinded and specious epistemological mileu of believing only mathematical facts truly basic - and then maintaining that this specification denotes the actual basic nature of reality.

The disastrous compartmentation of knowledge of this culture has resulted in people ill-educated in anything other than particles and numbers lacking even the most basic philosophical acumen necessary to avoid coming up with such theories. Yes, manipulation of the brain governs features of consciousness in so far as they relate to the physical world. But consciousness itself has primacy - the reality of the situation, as people using all their faculties know, is that the only world that really exists is the spiritual world. It is infinite, and this physical dimension, the world of action, is a small part of it. It is the world of meanings. Those 'things' that you see all around you, are 'things' only in so far as they are given instrumental value in relation to other things. In reality, they are pure meanings, and beyond that, they are the manifestation, the 'appearances' of the attributes of God. We exist, to some figurative extent, 'in the mind' of God. We are not God's Being Itself (people with capital-letteraphobia, my apologies.) but we are utterly from God, and THROUGH God. We are God's creating, that Absolute, Infinite, All-powerful All-knowing Reality beyond all categories or limitation.

Anyway, I apologize. My world-view is rooted in a classical intellectual system that is, unfortunately, in many ways utterly at odds with modern European thinking. But you are right to reject the anthropomorphism of Christian doctrine. You are right to reject irrational dogma, oppression, and hatred of the physical body. You are right to reject superstition. There is a whole lot right about the Enlightenment.

But there is a whole lot wrong too. As uncomfortable as it may be, it is clear that Nazism, and communism, and many terrible things, are as much historical manifestations of the Enlightenment as those things you love, freedom of speech, liberty, reason.

I promise you that you will never find true peace and joy in your soul until you accept that this reality is from, and is returning to, God. I pray that God turns you all onto a most beautiful path.

I won't be able to post again, as I'm going on an extended overland trip through Asia, but the best of luck to you all, and apologies if I've been disrespectful at any point. I can get a bit excited when I'm talking about things I care about.

Peace be upon you all :)

p.s by the way, Enigman, I love your work.

K. Szklenski said...

Someone said the following statements:
"Through meditation (which requires a lot of training to master), the material world is seen in a new light - not so 'material' after all, but a manifestation of the beauty and power, of the infinite attributes of the Absolute, the Ultimate Reality, God."

"The nature of the brain as an entity is specified by the first-person experience of mankind. Meaning has primacy. The alternative is fallacious - reality becomes a projection of ultimate meaningless, which is exactly nonsense in a meaningful world."

"...If it was just the average guy in the street having a major mystical experience, we would be quite justified, 9 times out of 10, in assuming it was some sort of major delusion."

For the first quote, and basically every other thing said by this person, there appears to be no actual supporting evidence. Terrence, I think you can safely conclude yourself a point.

The second quote is an example of the typical fallacious thinking that I saw at my old place of work. In order to determine that the universe has meaning and is meaningful, the quotee states that if it were otherwise, then the universe would be meaningless! As one of my former office mates might say, "If that isn't proof that the universe is meaningful, I don't know what is!"

The third quote is, of course, utterly ridiculous. You can claim all those celebrities and criminals and such are lying about their incredible mystical experiences, but until you can show me good reason to believe that Buddhists and people who are "spiritually adept" are NOT lying, then I see no reason to believe your assertion, either.

Unfortunately, much of what was said was meaningless. Word play and sophistry can get you pretty far, but when someone who is down-to-earth, like Terrence (down-to-earth is not meant as offensive here), simply asks, "What evidence do you have to support your conclusion?" And you spout off even more random, nonsensical, shoot-from-the-hip BS, it becomes clear that your argument has fallen on hard times. The insertion of impressive words that have no real meaning does nothing for an argument except possibly confuse your opponent into believing your assertions. That doesn't actually work against most cool-headed philosophers, such as Dr. Law.

Many of the posts as they are present "evidence" in the form of, "How can you explain XXX? You can't! Therefore, XXX must be caused by a higher power." In my view, this is essentially an argument from ignorance. "You don't know that it was NOT caused by a higher power." That type of thing. Claiming that consciousness cannot come from unconscious matter is laughable. That's like claiming that patterns can't exist in nature. Well who says they can't? And why can't they?


anonymous said, "...Do we know of anyone who has had a verifiable mystic experience (rendered reputable by means of spiritual training) who has since converted to atheism? If there are any how do they view their experience now?"

I suppose one could claim that my experience was not, "rendered reputable by means of spiritual training", or a "verifiable mystic experience", but for a long time I was a very, very devout Catholic. I used to get severe headaches, so bad that they would make me sick to my stomach, and so on. I also suffered from severe depression. My experience involved forcing myself into such a deep meditative state (which I HAD been practicing, not for the purpose of religious experience though. Just for relaxation) that I seemed to literally leave my body. I felt I could look down on myself. I also experienced what felt like someone looking over my shoulder. I traveled to what I thought was a higher plain. A bunch of interesting things happened, such as a vision of Mary. When I saw her, the severe tightness in my neck (which is what was causing my headache at the time) immediately went away, and I felt free, truly free. I have not suffered from depression since then.

And I am now a devout atheist. Not only this, but as an atheist, I have had similar experiences to the one above. I seem to be able to push myself into incredibly deep meditative states, and I absolutely love doing it. It's difficult, but at the same time it makes me feel truly aware of my surroundings.

It is interesting to note that the experience I had is not totally uncommon among people who suffered from depression, and that afterwards, they rarely suffered from depression either. There have been experiments recently that stimulate certain parts of the brain in order to produce the same feelings I had in order to try to find a cure for depression. Just from personal experience, I believe it's a fruitful avenue for science.

I view my experience as, "What happens when you deprive a person of sensory perceptions." In other words, the brain naturally goes into this state when all sensory apparatuses are toned down/off.

The fact is, though, my experience was proof that my brain can do some interesting things when put into the right types of situations. It is clear to me now that what occurred was an electro-chemical reaction caused by the loss of the senses. What more is there to answer?

NAL said...

pesky: Saying that consciousness is a by-product of the brain also necessitates a most distasteful solipsism, because it entails that the whole objective world of experience as specified through consciousness is, in reality, a bunch of chemical reactions in a brain. Obviously this is a ludicrous and contradictory proposition since the brain is supposed to exist 'in' the very same objective world that the follower of Scientism has just reduced to a brain.

I don't think any follower of Scientism reduces the objective world to the brain. The objective world will still exist without the brain. The first sentence uses the word "experience" which was left out of the second sentence. It's easy to find contradictions with that little trick.

If you think there is a God, then there is a God. That's because God is a figment of your thoughts and nothing more. You have chosen to believe in God and you must constantly justify that choice.

The probability of an alien civilization with the technological capability to visit Earth must be extremely small. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Earth is the most technological advanced civilization in our galaxy.

When one believes in the highly improbable, I wonder why that person has made that choice.

Enigman said...

Why must it be extremely small? Was our evolution so unlikely? Why?

Stephen Law said...

Three quick comments.

1. NAL suggests we atheists are in the grip of "scientism". What does that mean? That everything can be explained by science? Well, I don't believe that.

2. He also raises the problem of consciousness (of how consciousness can be accommodated within - or interact with - a purely physical universe. Can science solve that? My guess is no, because it is a conceptual problem, not a scientific one.

But of course, to say scientism is false and that science may not be able to solve the riddle of consciousness is not to provide any grounds at all for supposing that these particular experiences are veridical, or that e.g. the Judeo-Christian god exists. These are, in short, irrelevant red herrings. Let's get back to the issue - why is it more reasonable to suppose e.g. Christian religious experiences are any more veridical than experiences of alien abduction?

It's a good point that training in e.g. meditation may well be beneficial. Good for blood pressure, well-being, some insight into ones own character, even. But of course none of this gives us any reason to suppose that meditation also provides insight into the fundamental nature of reality. Let's not confuse these two issues.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou K. Szklenski for the first hand account.

If asked during your religious phase if your experience had qualified as mystical would you have said so? Did you report it to anyone - a priest perhaps?

Now a question to the theists. If citizen Szklenski had related this account whilst still a practicing Catholic would you give it credence as a mystical experience?

Kyle said...

Anon, this is the previous poster. Changed my nickname for a little anonymity (but don't mind your post). As it so happens, I did tell both my mother (who herself has had some mystical experiences), and a priest.

When I was a Catholic, oh yes I thought it was very mystical! At the time, though, I wasn't really a person thinking about it as a proof for god's existence. Indeed, it made me think about the term god in a wholly different way.

In some sense, it is what started me on the path to pure atheism. What happened to me in "this other place" (what I used to refer to it as) made me realize that hey, there's a LOT more to the brain than the credit I normally give it. If it was my soul leaving my body and doing that stuff, then how could I see or do anything at all? It had to be something physical in nature, rather than soul-related. That was the first crack in the armor that was my Catholicism.

Anonymous said...

Is there any correlation between religious mystical experience and alien abduction?

Do we find that the two are mutually exclusive or that people reporting either are more prone to report both?

NAL said...

Enigman: Why must it be extremely small?

Most of the stars in our galaxy are located near the center. Even if these stars have planets, their close proximity does not make for a longterm stable environment. Most of the stars are red dwarfs. I think when it's all considered, the probability of an advanced alien civilization is extremely small (in our galaxy).

Kyle said...

I've been away for a while, I'm sorry to be absent. I've also noticed that there is someone else called Kyle posting. This is very confusing.

Anyway, I think there is some confusion over appeals to 'religious experience'.

I don't speak on behave of all theists, but I would never argue anything like: I have had a religious experience, therefore you should believe in God.

I don't think anyone elses claim to have had a mystical experience can be used as evidence for anyone else.

The way I do think such experiences can play a role is to confirm someone for oneself.

I consider my belief in God to be perfectly natural, that is I am aware of it in an immediate way from the way I see the world and my encounters with scripture etc..

I don't think that anyone other than myself should regard this as evidence. However, if my awareness really is an awareness of God (perhaps through a sensus divinitatis) then it is perfectly rational for me to believe it is true.

I only cite such an experience against the charge that is often levelled against me, that my belief is simply irrational, whether true or not because I can't present publicly checkable evidence.

How does this advance the debate, you might ask. Well, it means that pointing out how crazy religious people are is beyond the point because your belief that many of them are crazy is based on your belief that they are wrong.

I believe that people who claim to have been abducted by aliens are deluded because I believe they are wrong. This means that if I want to have a really serious discussion about whether or not aliens exist then pointing to all the crazy people who claim to have been abducted won't help my case.

Kyle said...

Hey Kyle 1.0 (or maybe 2.0. I've been here a while, had just been gone for a while also! Doesn't matter, either way). I'll change my name to something else here in a moment, but for now I have to ask a clarification. You said,

"...if my awareness really is an awareness of God (perhaps through a sensus divinitatis) then it is perfectly rational for me to believe it is true."

But since you can't determine whether or not this awareness is really of your god, then how can you say it is rational to believe? It seems you may be putting the cart before the horse, so to speak.

The next part is completely unrelated to your posts, Kyle 1.5.0.1.
Based on the occasional poster's comments, I've come up with a proposal. I am calling it the Blowhard Proposal. I will first state the proposal, then show its foundation:

We should not believe something that has no foundation, is utterly confusing, and is without falsifiability, especially if it requires believing something
supernatural, when a natural explanation fits just as well or better.

This is based on three "razors".

1) Occam's Razor - This one is the best-known. It basically states that a supernatural explanation for something which has just as good natural explanations merely becomes superfluous.
2) Russel's Razor - I'm not sure if I made that name up, but it's based on Bertrand Russel's, "We should not believe anything for which there is not sufficient evidence to believe it."
3) Kyle's Razor - Mine, which is something like, "When discussing something, we should be as clear and precise as possible with our terms to avoid confusion, and promote actually dealing with the issues."

Enigman said...

Stephen: irrelevant red herrings

Kyle: pointing out how crazy religious people are is beyond the point because your belief that many of them are crazy is based on your belief that they are wrong

Plantinga: suppose theistic belief is true: then we human beings have been created by a loving God who would be interested in our knowing about him, and would almost certainly have provided a way by which we could come to know him and know about him. He would therefore have created us in such a way that under the right conditions we would come to know him and know about him. Since many of us (again, assuming that theism is true) do in fact know him and know about him, the natural thing to think, surely, is that the processes or faculties by which these beliefs are formed are functioning properly in the sort of environment for which they were designed; further, they are successfully aimed at the production of true belief, i.e. those beliefs involved in knowing God and knowing something about him. If theistic belief is true, therefore, then in all probability it meets the conditions of warrant; on the other hand, if it is false, then in all probability it does not meet those conditions.

Me: Stephen, in your last lines (in both these posts) you do seem to assume what you have seemed to deny you assume, when you conclude that even oneself should not believe the direct evidence of one's own senses. Now sure, the accounts we read, of the religious experiences of others, are prima facie like those of UFO abductees (at least for me they are, since I don't rule out robot-aliens, or divine revelations, and God is odd, and aliens probably are too; and most such accounts are clearly mostly literally false), but it is all testimony, you know... linguistic accounts of intrinsically complex experiences, with so many unknowns (the more you think about it, the more of them you notice, of more and more kinds, you know)... It is much more straightforward in the case of one's own experiences; or the testimony of an exceptionally reliable person who you know directly very well. And from such possibilities, in the background (amongst others of course), one can apply one's judgement about an actual case, but surely only in the light of all the relevant data (e.g. were the scribes copying the accounts prejudiced, or afraid of what others might think, etc. etc.), at least if one wants to be fair, and rational, and of course, a big part of how that background data contributes to your assessment of any particular set of testimonies (which are not often either fully believed or fully disbelieved of course) is how likely there is to be a Creator of all this... and that is affected by your position on the atheism/theism continuum (which position might be due in part to how much store you have put by testimony, quite coherently). It all gets very complicated of course, more so in the theistic case than in the alienistic case, but it is your analogy, your conclusion, and so they are your complications (you must show that they are on a par those two cases), I'd guess...

anticant said...

Each of us believes what we believe, and considers [or are convinced] that it is 'true' or 'real'. Our beliefs ARE real for us, but that does not make them 'true' in any wider, more universal sense.

Of course God - or Allah, or Jehovah, or Zeus, or Odin, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster - is 'real' for those who believe in them, but that is no evidence for, or proof of, their actual existence.

If we are to have a meaningful discussion, we really do need to exercise some verbal discipline, and to utlilse Kyle's three razors.

Well, here's my input for what it's worth: I do not believe that there is any credible evidence, apart from the claims of 'believers', that there is such a thing as the "Supernatural", or that the various postulated deities actually exist outside the minds of their devotees.

But, like Dr Johnson's sceptical lady, I believe in the universe, and in my own current existence as part of it.

Stephen Law said...

Kyle (the theist one) said: "I don't think that anyone other than myself should regard this as evidence. However, if my awareness really is an awareness of God (perhaps through a sensus divinitatis) then it is perfectly rational for me to believe it is true."

But Kyle this doesn't follow. I've already come up with cases, e.g. seeing an orange at a magic show, in which, though your perceptual faculties are functioning properly, it is not rational to believe what you "see".

You run into similar problems here, it seems to me. Given excellent grounds for supposing both that what you seem to experience is not there, and also that very many people have been deceived under these circumstances, the rational thing for you to do is to be sceptical.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Enigman

I am not sure I get your objection. I think having a good evidence there is no God *does* contribute to the evidence against religious experiences being veridical.

Or are you invoking a blanket scepticism here - Before I help myself to such evidence, I must first show how to defeat the sceptic (while the theistic hypothesis does deal with he sceptic)?

anticant said...

Another thing. A lot of people debating these issues here seem to have a compulsive need to prove [to themselves, if no-one else] that they are 'right', and that those who disagree with them are 'wrong'.

As a commentator on my recent post, 'The need to be right', in Anticant's Arena, said, "While most atheists 'respect' believers at least to the extent that they do not wish to interfere unduly with their beliefs, the problem of course comes the other way round, with believers frequently seeking to impose their views (or the consequences of their views) on others and/or seek privileges for themselves simply on account of their beliefs."

It is these social and political consequences of religious belief that impel me to blog here and elsewhere - not the probably insoluble philosophical and intellectual conundrums and verbal quibbles in which some of you take delight. I do not wish to live in a society dominated and disrupted by the irrationalisms and fanaticisms of religious believers who aren't prepared to accept that others have the right to reject their faith, and who go on the - sometimes murderous - rampage when their beliefs are criticised or ridiculed.

Religious people are always demanding 'respect', but they should only be entitled to it if they are prepared to respect the beliefs of others who do not share their faiths. Without a mutually agreed level of tolerance, there can be no civilised society; and tolerance cannot be a one-way street.

Anonymous said...

Is God trying to communicate by means of these mystic experiences?

Yes - This presents problems if we maintain God's omnipotence. The communication is far from perfect. To appeal to the idea that God is simply too great to comprehend will not do. God could easily tone things down and explain on our terms.

No -
a) God chooses to remain aloof from us and is successful in doing so In this case the mystical experience cannot be related to God.
b) the mystics are simply observers of God, catching mere glimpses of glory which God chooses to hide from the majority of the population.
This again presents problems. It implies that God is imperfect in Her attempts to remain hidden.
c) the mystic has been singled out by God for a "quick flash" as it were. In which case we are bak to the "yes" ase above.

[ A loose summary of some arguments presented in Stanislaw Lem's "Non Serviam" ]

The same arguments apply to the aliens.
If they are as capable as claimed then their behavior is often irrational and downright stupid. But then since the abducted do not make claims of omnipotence and omni-benevolence (those probes!!) we should regard them as more plausible than the mystics.

anticant said...

The mystics who claim they "know god" are rather like spiritualist mediums who cash in on people's natural desire to contact their lost loved ones in another world.

The question is, Is 'esoteric knowledge' really knowledge in any meaningful sense? Or is it just wish-think? [either sincere, or cynically manipulated by power-seekers.]

Enigman said...

Hey, maybe reading these comments is having some effect on this theist, because I found those last comments agreable...

Although my objection, Stephen, was what I took theistic Kyle to be saying, that the degree of excellence of your "excellent grounds" depends upon metaphysical considerations only partially supported by such grounds. I quite agree with that part of that that is that having good evidence that there is no God contributes to the evidence against religious experiences being veridical.

One should be (as philosophers are) skeptical of a lot of things (e.g. that time, as we know it, is relativistic, since that is no more supported by the scientific evidence than that space is Euclidean was, a hundred years ago; and that is quite an apposite analogy because there is a role for one's direct knowledge there, and that role is challenged by modern physicalism, but also sensitive to the amount of philosophical analysis, of the concept of time, that one has performed), but I was not invoking a blanket scepticism so far as I am aware.

Anticant, I totally agree with you about the socio-political aspects. But I hope that philosophy (conceptual analysis) can help us to see where we agree and what we really disagree about, and shift the socio-political scene away from such "irrationalisms and fanaticisms." And I totally agree that the deepest question here is the relationship between truthful and wishful (although I suspect that it is a philosophically deep question). But maybe we just wish it was the case that truth was more important than mere wishes!

Anonymous, the most plausible explanation for the hiddenness of God (which also allows for some genuine mystical experiences) is simultaneously the most plausible explanation for God's allowing of evil (which is The Odyssey Theodicy, for more info click on my pseudonym).

anticant said...

Enigman, I wish I could share your optimism that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and that ultimately the challenges facing us all in the 21st century will be decided by civilised debate. But I fear that is a luxury that may soon be denied to all of us if the strident bigots who are prepared to use violence to impose their world-view on everyone else are not determinedly checked.

The danger of absolute certainty that you are 'right' in believing whatever it is that you believe, without a scintilla of doubt, is that it justifies the use of any means - including violence - to impose your 'truth' upon others: the end justifies the means. This is why I think Ibrahim's teaching his pupils that Islam is a 'given' that may not be questioned is so dangerous.

As Cromwell said to the Church of Scotland, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

My personal belief is that anyone who never allows themself to think they may be mistaken is deluded and a social menace.

Enigman said...

Again I find myself in agreement with you. But lots of religious schools are not so bad, and will change for the better if the liberals (so to speak) become relatively stronger, within the religion in question, which they will probably not be able to do if their religion as a whole is under attack.

I like that personal belief of yours, which is like the final point that Stephen made in this post; but both Stephen and you seem (at other times) to believe that you are proving something (that seems much) stronger, e.g. that whether or not there’s a God, or indeed, whether or not we are equipped with a sensus divinitatis, we are not rational or justified in believing God exists.

It seems that you think that even if there was a God who had made X so that X had that true belief (that there was a God) then for that reason alone X would not be rational. To me, that sounds like someone putting a favoured position (within epistemology) ahead of the facts (which include the self-evident), whence I suggest that you think again.

anticant said...

Enigman, I do happen to believe that reason is a more useful – because more realistic – tool than faith for making sense of the universe and what is actually going on in it. But I recognise that this, too, is a conclusion based on faith [in reason]. Which is not to say that atheism, or agnosticism, is a ‘faith’: it is not; it is absence of faith in the existence of a supernatural realm or of ‘supernatural’ beings. For me, as for most non-believers, this a question of the balance of probability.

All that believers and theists of any stripe have ever produced is pure assertion. There is no tangible testable evidence, other than their beliefs, for the existence of a Creator God. I do not believe that you can conclusively prove either the existence or the non-existence of God - although I think Stephen may disagree with me about that.

However, what really matters is not whether you are rational or justified in believing God exists – the crucial point at issue is the practical consequences of such beliefs. Even a cursory glance at history, and the world situation today, shows that these consequences have been and are on balance far more harmful than beneficial to humanity.

As you have come late to this debate, and it is now very long and spread over numerous threads since early December, you may like to spend a while reading through some of the previous posts and comments. You may also like to look at two recent posts of mine in Anticant’s Arena:

http://antarena.blogspot.com/2008/01/does-reason-matter.html

http://antarena.blogspot.com/2008/01/does-gods-existence-matter.html

I’m happy to debate these issues with you, because they are fascinating in themselves, apart from their practical importance, but I do think we need to understand each other’s respective positions if we are to have a useful discussion.

Terence said...

anticant writes, "what really matters is not whether you are rational or justified in believing God exists – the crucial point at issue is the practical consequences of such beliefs . . . . "

While I do agree with your assessment of the practical consequences of those beliefs, I think you are overlooking that those consequences arose *because* beliefs were adopted without adequate justification. In other words, unjustified (irrational) beliefs don't tend to produce "good" consequences.

Kyle S said...

I'm now calling myself Kyle S, to try and make things easier.

Stephen, you said that the orange example shows how my beliefs are undermined, but I don't think this applies.

Showing that the 'orange' on the table is an illusion only undermines belief in that orange, otherwise we would have the ridiculous situation where all beliefs about oranges are undermined by showing that some are illusions.

You may have pointed out how some people have clearly deluded beliefs about God. However, this does not undermine my belief. What you need to do is show that there is a problem with my belief.

I'd just like to reiterate my claim is that my experience can function as a perfectly acceptable ground for my belief not that my experience should convince you. I am responding to the charge that my belief is irrational because I cannot present any publicly accessible evidence.

Enigman said...

Hmm... (thanks for the links by the way) anticant: All that believers and theists of any stripe have ever produced is pure assertion. There is no tangible testable evidence, other than their beliefs, for the existence of a Creator God.
That's a sweeping statement: should I respectfully take you at your word; or take you to be speaking with a rhetorical flourish? The latter is ordinary language, I guess (and was just addressed by Kyle S), but if the former then note (sorry for the length of the following) that I have myself made a preliminary investigation of some tangible (and therefore standing in need of interpretation of course, whence the status of religious experiences is apposite) testable (and therefore testable in many ways, depending upon the skills of the investigators) evidence (or rather, what would, I believe, become evidence upon proper scientific scrutiny) for substantial dualism about mind and brain, which would be in its turn evidence for a Creator God if the prior probabilities of the alternative explanations (of the primary evidence, and of dualism) are sufficiently less than 100%.

(deep breath:) My problem has been (it seems to me) that almost all the scientists who could investigate such things properly either already take those priors to be 100% (in practice) or else are being inundated by pseudoparanormal spam (for the obvious sociological reasons that readers here would know about). I agree with you that the presence or absence of such evidence is crucial (although I'm irrationally open-minded about alternative standards amongst my fellow humans). And I'm even aware that I might just be fooling myself (in which case such an investigation, unlikely as it is, would be embarrasing for me, and useless scientifically), and would in any case have a lot to learn about the details. But that I have only produced such assertions as the above (and the continuing absence of such scientific evidence) is something that atheistic physicalists (who dominate our self-assessing scientific communities) make their own free choice about. Whereas I detected an implicit blaming of theists such as myself for such absences, in anticant's remark above. Is it really that simple (sure theists were once to blame for the deficiencies of science, but they were once to thank for ethical progress, and so what?)?

(incidentally, terence and anticant, what you say at the end reminds me of Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology: what matters is salvation, is endless being without fear of suffering; whereas it is of course the truth that matters:)

anticant said...

Terence - how many of us have [or seek] adequate justification for all [or any] of our beliefs? I believe it's worthwhile for me to keep on pitching in here, probably because I rather enjoy it, but I'm not at all sure my belief is justified.....I agree with you that irrational beliefs tend to produce unfortunate consequences, but rational beliefs can produce bad consequences too. The question of what is 'good' and 'bad' is a moral issue which has nothing necessarily to do with belief or disbelief in the 'supernatural'. Ethics is about human motivation. It is not, as religionists claim [conveniently for themselves], necessarily linked to belief or disbelief in God. That assertion is a howling 'category mistake' on the part of faith-peddlers.

Enigman - you've no need to take me at my word, respectfully or otherwise; I was not speaking 'ex cathedra'. But nor was my remark a 'rhetorical flourish' - just a statement of the obvious. If your assesment of the evidence you refer to leads you to adhere to the Cartesian error of dualism, that is your privilege, or - in my view - your error. You have no need to feel embarrassed about your honest beliefs, nor am I 'blaming' you or any other theist for failing to produce tangible evidence for the existence of a 'supernatural' realm, or of 'supernatural' beings. I am merely pointing out that assertion is not plausible evidence.

As for your concluding remark, whatever 'truth' is it strikes me as hopelessly egocentric - indeed, self-indulgent - to believe that "what matters is salvation, is endless being without fear of suffering". For me, what matters is to get through each day of the here and now as best I can in the hope that I am doing something to make the miserable world around me a slightly better place.

Stephen Law said...

Kyle S said:

“…you said that the orange example shows how my beliefs are undermined, but I don't think this applies.

Showing that the 'orange' on the table is an illusion only undermines belief in that orange, otherwise we would have the ridiculous situation where all beliefs about oranges are undermined by showing that some are illusions.”

I think your belief is undermined, Kyle. First, in my magic show example, the orange is *not* an illusion, but still, under those circumstances, it’s unreasonable for a member of the audience to take their experience entirely at face value.

True, we shouldn’t generally be skeptical about the existence of oranges. But that’s because, in normal circumstances, there’s no reason to suspect deception/illusion.

But clearly, in the circumstances in which he finds himself, this audience-member should be rather more skeptical.

But then so should you.

My point is that the circumstances surrounding your religious experience are relevantly similar to those surrounding the experiences of others, very many of whom we know to be deluded.

We know that, *in the very sort of circumstances in which you find yourself* (i.e. the subject has a compelling seemingly-revelatory experience of some sort of supernatural reality) people are very often (i.e. in a majority of cases) deceived to at least a significant degree.

So your belief, based on your experience, *is* relevantly like that of the person who carries on trusting his eyes even when he knows he’s at a magic show, isn’t it?

Worse still, there is also very good independent evidence (the problem of evil) that what you believe is not, in fact, true. But even if there were not such evidence, you'd surely still in trouble, rationally speaking.

Stephen Law said...

Kyle

Here's another example for you. Suppose a new kind of telescope is developed to reveal otherwise unobservable and unknowable portions of reality. Scientists know, however, that on at least a majority of occasions, this telescope produces at least very significantly deceptive results. In fact, it may not work at all. You peak through the telescope and seem to observe P. However, when others peak through it, they observe quite different things. Oddly, very often, people tend to see what they expect to see.

Knowing all this, how reasonable is it for you to believe P?

Not very reasonable, I'd suggest.

So why is it reasonable of you to trust your religious experience?

Terence said...

anticant writes,"how many of us have [or seek] adequate justification for all [or any] of our beliefs?"

This is like asking 'how many of us try to make sound decisions in life'? I don't know the answer. But I do think things would be better for everyone if we all did.

He goes on to say, "I agree with you that irrational beliefs tend to produce unfortunate consequences, but rational beliefs can produce bad consequences too. The question of what is 'good' and 'bad' is a moral issue which has nothing necessarily to do with belief or disbelief in the 'supernatural'."

My choice of the word "bad" may have been misleading. I didn't mean it (neccessarily) in a moral sense. For example, do we expect believers in Christian Science to make "good" helath care decisions? I suggest that their irrational beliefs (which they are not adequately justified in having) will tend to produce poor choices, with greater negative consequences. Not that rational choices always produce good or positive health consequences, just that they tend to produce more favorable consequences more often (than irrationally-inspired choices).

anticant said...

Christian Science helped my mother to feel better in herself. Although I think it's intellectual hogwash, I had the good sense to stop trying to argue her out of it when I realised it was, subjectively speaking, doing her good. She met some very pleasant people through it, and thank goodness had enough sense not to stop seeing doctors 'when her faith wasn't strong enough', or to give up alcohol!

NAL said...

What Is Consciousness?

Now, I happen believe that there's no such thing as "consciousness" in the sense of something tangible that we can point to and say. "That's consciousness." I think it's merely a descriptive term for brain activity.

Larry Moran goes on to ask whether the character Data on Star Trek (TNG) was conscious. An interesting question.