Monday, March 17, 2008

Religious experiences - the telescope analogy


Here's another analogy with religious experience.

It's supposed that we (or some of us) are equipped with what Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls a sensus divinitatis - an extra "sense" that allows us to experience God directly.

If someone experiences God by such means, then, it's suggested, they can know God exists. It's also reasonable for them to believe God exists.

But is it? After all, there are so many different religious experiences, experiences which contradict each other in so many ways (about the number of Gods, character of these Gods, and so on). The power of suggestion is also clearly heavily involved in shaping these experiences - as the experiences tend to be culturally highly specific.

Here's my analogy.

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 peek through the telescope and seem to observe P. However, when others peek 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 (not even if the telescope is, on this particular occasion, functioning reliably).

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

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

Stephen,

I presume you would wish to add the condition that there is no available means of knowing when the 'scope is giving unreliable info. This seems difficult as you state that "Scientists know, however, that on at least a majority of occasions, this telescope produces at least very significantly deceptive results." How? Isn't this question begging?

This one has problems as a model I think in that a telescope is available to more than one person simultaneously. Aside from the fact that most of the these days use CCD cameras, it would be possible to provide a simple optical splitter to allow two observers at once or even to project the image on a small screen.
Mystics do not appear to be able to do this.

Also it performs at least to some extent to order. On any given night, if the sky is clear, and you have made a booking you can make an observation. The mystics carefully explain why they cannot perform to order.


Incidentally was "You peak through the telescope" intentional? It does seem rather appropriate in a way!

Stephen Law said...

Thanks anonymous - yes sorry about spelling. I will fix it.

re. scientists knowing the telescope is not very reliable, I guess the reason the scientists can know this is that it gives contradictory results, that the results are clearly heavily shaped by power of suggestion, etc.

Another disanalogy is that the scope clearly exists and was designed for the purpose of revealing the heavens. That is not so for the sensus divinitatis.

I imagine some thesists will say the analogy breaks down because when people have dodgy religious experiences, they are not using the sensus divinitatis. So, when it functions, it functions reliable, unlike the telescope.

But we can easily construct another analogy to deal with that case - where we have many such telescopes, all contradicting each other. Even if some (10%, say) of these telescopes are reliable instruments, no one can reasonably take what they see through their own telescope at face value, given that, for all they know, theirs is very probably one of the dodgy ones.

Anonymous said...

What grounds do/can the scientists have for believing that the telescope ever functions according to its claimed purpose?

Were we to have many such instruments as you suggest I am sure that taking the entire data set into account we would be able to pull something out of the noise. Certainly at the 10% level.
As you say any individual observer would be overwhelmingly likely to be making an invalid observation but taken together they would be significant. Are not some of the mystics claiming that such a pattern is observed?

I think you should keep the "peak" spelling. Its a nice pun.

Sam Norton said...

Stephen, if we substituted 'conscience' for 'religious experience' would it make any difference to your arguments? This too is something which people claim to experience, and which leads them to do very different things etc, so why should we trust our conscience?

anticant said...

The alleged 'sensus divinitatis' is merely another claim to esoteric knowledge or a 'sixth sense' which enables those who believe they possess it to adopt the stale old "We know better than you do because we have privileged access to God" posture.

Meditation is a valuable tool for concentrating and calming the mind and stretching one's awareness beyond surface consciousness. It can be focussed on any chosen object - not necessarily religious - and at deeper levels becomes objectless. Even religious teachers of meditative techniques warn against false illusions of omniscience, power, grandeur, etc. which may emerge and should be dismissed.

Obviously mystical experiences are 'real' in the sense that they do happen in the minds of those having them. What is questionable and unverifiable is the interpretation put upon them. Even if you are convinced that your mystical experience has revealed God to you, that is no proof of God's actual existence.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't resist it. Sorry.

Successful Cosmology Haiku
----------------------------

An astronomer,
She peaks through a great telescope.
Stellar prominence!

Anonymous said...

Stephen said

"Another disanalogy is that the scope clearly exists and was designed for the purpose of revealing the heavens. That is not so for the sensus divinitatis."

Not so sure its that far off. In the case of the scope there is a physical object (a big tubular thing in an observatory) but it is clearly not meeting its design goals and in respect of its usefulness as an instrument would appear to be so much scrap. Yes you can look through it and see something which though possibly pretty, conveys no real information. This also seems the case with the average mystical experience.

Regarding the SD do I take it that you see Plantinga's version of it as the most serious? If so could you suggest some recommended reading? I've seen a couple of summaries but I am sure they did not do his views justice.

Paul said...

Just a small point but does naming this hypothesised sensory apparatus the 'sensus divinitatis' not make it sound more worthy of serious consideration than it actually is? Latin makes everything sound important.

Can it not be called the 'God module' or something similar?

Enigman said...

My intuitions were oddly the other way, Paul. Even to me, "sensus divinitatis" connotes the sort of medieval metaphysics that is widely believed, even by Christians, to have been refuted by modern science. Although "God module" connotes a part of the modular brain that, when stimulated, gives some of us (famously not Dawkins) religious experiences, to me, whence I would find its use to be connoting begging the question. I've no better suggestions myself though.

Stephen Law said...

ANONYMOUS SAID: Were we to have many such instruments as you suggest I am sure that taking the entire data set into account we would be able to pull something out of the noise. Certainly at the 10% level.

As you say any individual observer would be overwhelmingly likely to be making an invalid observation but taken together they would be significant. Are not some of the mystics claiming that such a pattern is observed?

STEPHEN REPLIES. Good point. Trouble is the background is not simply randomly generated noise or static, but people’s interpretations of what they have experienced – e.g. gods, god-men, angels, demons, etc.

Now, the power of suggestion means that we’d expect some agreement in these misperceptions anyway.

Compare Lowell’s canals on Mars. He saw them through his telescope. Then other trained astronomers saw them too. They even mapped them in great detail (image here: http://www.resa.net/nasa/mars_canals.htm). Yet they don’t exist. Lowell’s authority and credibility heavily shaped what other trained observers saw, so that their experiences “agreed”.

We’d also expect some agreement because of what we know about human psychology (we all have roughly the same worries, concerns, needs, attachments to our parents, and so on – and so will be looking for something “up there” to answer those needs.)

But then, given that we’d expect a bit of agreement anyway, a bit of agreement in people’s subjective reports is not evidence for anything objective.

So, while statistical analysis of images produced by a telescope might produce something fairly conclusive, statistical analysis of people’s subjective reports of their own religious experiences is far more problematic. The problem is that what you are trying to pull data out from is not random “noise”, but people’s subjective reports.

I'll reply to Sam shortly...

Stephen Law said...

http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/M/Marscanals.html

Nice entry on the canals of Mars.

Stephen Law said...

ANONYMOUS ASKED: Regarding the SD do I take it that you see Plantinga's version of it as the most serious? If so could you suggest some recommended reading? I've seen a couple of summaries but I am sure they did not do his views justice.

STEPHEN RELPIES. Well, he's the biggest name, at least. My knowledge mostly comes from his book Warranted Christian Belief.

Enigman said...

Hmm... presumably that does not mean that, since we'd expect some agreement anyway, agreement would not imply rationality? For then it would be harder to show that disagreement should imply irrationality.

Suppose there was still widespread agreement over religious imagery, as there had been in the past, over large areas and ages (maybe one side won all the battles). You are not suggesting that then it would be rational to believe that there was a God are you?

It's actually a deep point this, I think, because I think that the fact that so many people believe in God gives us a prima facie reason to consider the relative probabilities of theism and atheism seriously (e.g. not to get an atheism of the gaps too cheaply from the problem of evil). Some say that atheism is simply not theism, and it is theism (with its positive posit) that has the burden of proof; but is that generally the case?

Suppose that half of the population were Lewisian, and did not posit ordinary objects behind the observables. Would that make the other half (whose ordinary objects explain their observations by, ex hypothesi, causing them) irrational?

Enigman said...

(woops, that was a comment on your earlier reply to anonymous, Stephen)

Enigman said...

Anyway, I guess you could say (sorry if you wouldn't; this'll be my only guess at a counter) that our perception of objects is reliable, but the thing is that we do describe objects differently (some of us are colour-blind, for example), and that does not seem to subtract from the reliability of our claims that the underlying objects exist; although the Lewisians could make an argument parallel to yours, that it should.

Anonymous said...

Enigman , You said "Suppose there was still widespread agreement over religious imagery, as there had been in the past, over large areas and ages (maybe one side won all the battles)."

In the case where as you put it a single dominant culture had emerged this wouldn't help us much. One would presumably still be able to argue from historical evidence that other (defeated) cultures interpreted things differently (e.g. as in the case of the Norse Gods). I don't think one an construct much of an argument by requiring ignorance of facts.

On the other hand if one wishes to see things from the point of view of a member of such a homogeneous culture, who is ignorant of history (perhaps the rulers burnt the books?), it may help to explain their actions.

Actually I very much doubt if you could find a significant period of history where such a uniformity existed. Even if not riven by overt schisms, religions have always (as far as I know) had different schools, inner cliques, sects, little endians and other heretics.

Enigman said...

Fair point, anonymous; but still, such conflicts resembled, in content, those of philosophy, but in form those of politics. Nowadays we know more about diversity, but it is also the case that such conflicts are increasingly inclusivistic...

Cf. the Idealist thinking of the percepts as real, and failing to see how an object could be real like that, when really the Realist thinks of the percepts as less objective (and each for all people's experiences, including those of the other). Similarly theists could hold that a vision of the Virgin was not just the perception of a woman with supernatural powers. She could hold that the revealed Divine would not fail to be Real just because someone else had a valid vision of Vishnu. That is because Mary herself, when she was definitely real (historically), was only a Creation of that Divinity (was to it in a way much lesser than how a percept is to its object), as we all are (under that hypothesis).

How can something look all red and all green? Is it a percept of reen or gred? No, it is not even a percept, but is an apple, half red and half green. Maybe that is what I meant to say?

Kyle S said...

Religious experience or things similar to it are spoken about by lots of different in lots of different ways. There's no doubt about that.

I'd like to point out what I mean. My claim is that there is source of knowledge that allows me to know God. This is not a voice in my head, or a vision, in fact, it doesn't involve any of my five senses. It is more like my knowledge that 'needlessly harming the harmless is wrong', or that 'all things are self-identical'. Furthermore, I claim that it is a source of knowledge, not a sense. It may be a sense, but I am open to other possibilities. We have lots of sources of knowledge that are not senses, e.g. testimony, reason etc...

My claim is now that this is perfectly acceptable evidence for me, and only me, to believe that God exists. It would be ridiculous for anyone else to believe on the basis of my experience. Stephen, it seems to me that lots of your comments are an attempt to show why you need not believe on the basis of other peoples experiences, and I agree with you on that.

I don't think the telescope example is analogous. Whatever the SD is, it is definitely not some shared apparatus. If other people have bad eyesight, it does not prove that my eyesight is probably bad as well. Also, just because people have beliefs about God I am not committed to believing that their beliefs are produced by the SD. Perceptual type beliefs can come from places other than your senses, e.g. hallucinations, dreams etc...

I've mentioned this example before but I will reiterate it briefly again: Suppose that I am falsely accused of crime for which there is in fact overwhelming evidence that I am guilty. I think it would be irrational for you to believe me that I am innocent, just because I say 'I know I'm innocent' but it does seem rational for me to believe it, even though the evidence suggests otherwise and I know of lots of cases where guilty people claim they are innocent. Most of your arguments against religous experience would suggest that I would be irrational to believe that I am innocent in such a situation.

Now, this does not mean that by beliefs are completely immune from all argument. I can't just simply yell at the top of my voice in the face of any evidence, 'but I know it!' Howeveer, pointing out that other people, who are clearly crazy, make similar claims to me, does not count as a good argument against my belief.

The problem of evil, or some other argument might be something I need to give a response to, but that strikes me as a discussion for another day, and not directly relevant to the present discussion.

Anonymous said...

Kyle. S - You would discount all those experiences of the burning bush, voice from the heavens etc as vanilla flavoured hallucinations then?

If I follow your version of SD correctly:

a) It is rational for you to believe because you have a unique (to you) source of knowledge.

b) It is not rational for anyone else to believe your claim to knowledge because they do not have access to your source.

Surely then, it is not rational for you to believe anyone else that lays claim to the same knowledge. (The most likely explanation is that they are just humoring you.)

Knowing that it is irrational for anyone else to believe a claim is it still rational to make the claim?

Kyle s said...

Anonymous, I can can see why you might have misinterpretted me.

I am not saying that it is always irrational to believe that someone else has had a religious experience, rather, you should not believe that anyone else has had a religious simply because they tell you they have.

Given that I believe that God exists and that he speaks to people today then I expect other people to have religious experiences.

I don't like the term religious experience because, to me at least, it suggests something miraculous. I have never had experience like that. Instead, I mean it to include things as mundane as being aware that God exists and also being aware that the Bible is his Word.

Please don't retort, 'but lots of people claim that God speaks to them and that they have his holy book'. That's my point, you shouldn't believe people when they say that just because they've told you.

You likewise shouldn't believe me, unless you have had a similar experience to the one I have had.

Stephen Law said...

What's interesting,though, Kyle, is that, had you been born in a different culture, you'd very likely be saying the same thing, only about a different Holy Book, and possibly even a different God or Gods.

Doesn't that give you pause for thought?

Stephen Law said...

I'd find it kind of worrying if it doesn't give you pause for thought!

Kyle S said...

That does give me pause for thought. However, I don't think I have any strong reasons for thinking this is the only reason that I hold the religious beliefs that I do. After all, I have accepted some of the beliefs of my family, culture, peer group; but I have also rejected others.

I like to question all of my beliefs and work things through. I realise that I have a lot of work still to do, as I am sure we all do. But I see no reason to think that my religious beliefs are purely a result of my upbringing.

Also, upbringing doesn't generally speaking seem to be effective enough. I know of plenty of people who have moved from believing in a religion to believing in none or vice versa and also moving between religions.

It gives me pause for thought, but no more so than the pause for thought I have about whether political beliefs are simply taken from those around me.

Anonymous said...

Kyle S.

Sorry if I have misinterpreted you or seemed to do so. You said:

"I am not saying that it is always irrational to believe that someone else has had a religious experience, rather, you should not believe that anyone else has had a religious simply because they tell you they have."

But there is no externally verifiable evidence. The experience is unique to that person and so we only have their word for it don't we? Unlesx you are suggesting there is some way of verifying their claim.

You said earlier that "My claim is now that this is perfectly acceptable evidence for me, and only me, to believe that God exists. It would be ridiculous for anyone else to believe on the basis of my experience." [my italics]

Given this, surely it is also not reasonable for you to believe someone else's claim to knowledge on the basis of their experience then? I might accept that you may believe in God on the basis of your experience but you should not beleive that their claim to knowledge has been correctly arrived at. They could, as far as you know, just be guessing. Given the number of false visions, dreams, mental abberations etc observable in the population at large it is rational for you to expect this to be more likely.

You also said:
"You likewise shouldn't believe me, unless you have had a similar experience to the one I have had."

I would agree with that as far as it goes but still think there is a good case that I should not believe you even then.
I would hate to think you are recommending taking the position "if someone else agrees with me are they are right, if they do not they are wrong".

Knowing that your claim to knowledge cannot be accepted as (justifiable/reliable) knowledge by anyone else, should you give voice to this claim? Others may either accept or reject the claim. The acceptances will however be unreliable. The church pews will be filled with people who must suspect each other to be irrational or delusional.

Stephen Law said...

The rev. Sam has tried defending religious experience by drawing an anology with our moral conscience. It's a popular move, I think. Here it is:

SAM SAID: “Stephen, if we substituted 'conscience' for 'religious experience' would it make any difference to your arguments? This too is something which people claim to experience, and which leads them to do very different things etc, so why should we trust our conscience?”

STEPHEN REPLIES: Interesting analogy.

Well, first off, you shouldn’t be entirely trusting of your conscience; I’m not of mine. If reason etc. otherwise indicates your moral intuitions are in error, then you should reject them. So, for example, common moral intuitions on homosexuality, the role of women, on other species, etc. – are mistaken. But note there's also good reason to suppose that e.g. your religious experience of an all-powerful, all-good God is mistaken (the evidential problem of evil).

Second, and more importantly, is your moral conscience a quasi-perceptual faculty for determining extra-mental, super-natural facts? That’s what your analogy with the sensus divinitatis requires. But, of course, that our moral conscience is such a quasi-perceptual faculty is highly unlikely. Certainly, you haven't given us any reason to suppose it is.

More probably, our moral conscience is something that has evolved to help us (or our genes) survive and reproduce.

The bottom line is – like a great many philosophers, I am, for good reasons, skeptical of the suggestion that my moral conscience is a quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing non-natural facts. But then I’m similarly skeptical about the suggestion that I’m equipped with a sensus divinitatis - quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing super-natural God-facts.

True, I do often trust the deliverances my moral conscience. But I can do that while being very skeptical of the suggestion that it’s a quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing super-natural facts.

But now notice that you CAN'T similarly trust your religious experience that there’s a God, while remaining skeptical of the suggestion that it’s a quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing super-natural facts.

To argue: "Aha, you consider yourself reasonable in trusting the deliverances of your moral conscience. So you must acknowledge that I am reasonable in trusting my religious experiences!" is to overlook this key difference between moral conscience and sensus divinitatis.

So your analogy fails, I think.
nb.

I have also put this up as a main post.

Kyle S said...

To anonymous:

Let me give you an analogous example. Suppose that Tim tells you that Elvis is alive, and you reply that this is a ridiculous belief because you there is no evidence. Tim then produces various letters, they are all dated recently, and say 'from Elvis' at the bottom.

I don't think you should believe. There are many explanations for such letters other than that Elvis wrote them. However, Tim has recently met Elvis (he has no evidence for this, so he cannot prove it to you) and Elvis told him that he would write to him from time to time. I think Tim has perfectly good evidence for believing that Elvis is alive and that he wrote the letters in question. However, you have no more evidence in this situation, so you should be sceptical.

Now imagine that Tim meets Bob who also has letters from Elvis. They are written in a similar style, and Bob also tells Tim that he met Elvis, and that Elvis promised to write. Both Bob and Tim have similar evidence with which to prove their beliefs, so I think you should disbelieve them both, but surely they have good reason to believe each other.

This is simply what I mean with regard to believing other religious people. I, unlike an atheist, do believe that people have experiences of God, and so, if their experiences are relevantly similar to my own, I have good reason to suppose that they are true.

Anonymous said...

Kyle S.

Like the Elvis letters!

The gap here sees to be that for Elvis there is some sort of documentary evidence (OK open to challenge from those who claim forgery etc. but still it an be examined). In the case of religious experience no such letters are shown. So I still don't believe that you are justified in believing your fellow theists. Nor they you.

Kyle S said...

Hi Anonymous,

I could say re-run the elvis example but instead replace the letters with Elvis implants a chip in their brain that relays messages to them. Tim and Bob then simply talk to each other about the sorts of messages that they get this way.

However, although I think this would meet your objection, it does not match what I consider religious experience to be. I'm not talking about visions, or hearing voices, or anything like that. Instead it is the awareness that 'God exists' or 'God has created everything' or 'the thing you are reading is from God'.

I believe that I have experienced all three of these sorts of things, and the latter when I am reading the Bible. I do then have documentary evidence to compare. Or, at least, when someone tells me that they know something about God through such an experience I can check it against the Bible.

Anonymous said...

Kyle S

interested in the aspect which you describe as knowing 'the thing you are reading is from God'. How reliable does this seem to be?

Kyle S said...

Anonymous:

I don't think such beliefs have to conferr certainty to be useful, in fact, they could have say 60% reliability, and still be useful.

For example, with the elvis letters. Imagine that Bob gets a sudden influx of letters all claiming to be from Elvis. On first reading he sees no reason to reject them any of them as being from Elvis. However, on closer inspection, they contradict one another. How then can he tell which letters are really from Elvis?

There are lots of possible ways, compare them to earlier letters that he knows are from Elvis; if some letters say things that only Elvis would know, then he should trust those ones more. I'm sure you can think of plenty of other ways he can decide.

What I am describing here is something that I think is quite common. For something to be a source of knowledge it doesn't have to confer certainty. So, our eyes can deceive us, but we can still use our eyes to tell us when our vision goes wrong.

I know that there are religious people out there who say, that they just know something with absolute certainty and it is untouchable. I think this is the incorrect way to behave towards such experience.

However, when some religious people say that they know that God exists with absolute certainty, I think they might mean something like: 'I know that God exists with the same certainty that I know the sky is blue'. And I would certainly agree with them about that.

Anonymous said...

Kyle S.

I agree when you say "I don't think such beliefs have to confer certainty to be useful, in fact, they could have say 60% reliability, and still be useful."

So how reliable is the knowledge that you experience? Can you tell when it is being less reliable?

Kyle S said...

Anonymous:

I'm not sure I understand your question. Are you looking for some kind of figure? Or are you looking for a description of when it is and is not reliable?

If you asked me to do either of those things for my eyes I couldn't give it to you. What sort of an answer are you looking for?

Anonymous said...

Kyle S,

Well if you could say 53,9% certain with a plus or minus 3.28% error that would be neat but very unlikely I think. :)

I am assuming here that there are types of religious experiences other than the simple feeling that "God exists". You mentioned the Bible as well.

Several types of answers are possible I think. One is the very quantitative one above. Alternatively by your letters from Elvis analogy is there some sort of "signature" you have come to recognize?

Is it a sporadic, some days it's there others not, sort of thing?

Kyle S said...

Perhaps I've been describing this badly.

This source of information is not something that I am very often conscious of. In fact, I'm sure I only think about it in these terms because I like philosophy and I think too much.

When we come to know something through a sense we rarely actively think about that sense. For example, when I see that the sky is blue, I don't at the same time think about my eyes. There are also cases where we never seem to think about the source. Psychologists have shown that we process a lot of information about a person from their smell that we are not aware of.

What I mean by religious experience is perhaps more like that. It does not give me information that i section off as religious truth, it just gets mixed in with my other beliefs. I also can't help but believe these things. I can't help but believe that God exists, or that the Bible is his word.

Now, some of you are probably now thinking that I am a crazy dogmatic fundamentalist, but I think lots of our beliefs, maybe most, fall into this category.

If you do not believe me then I have an exercise for you. Go outside and find a patch of green grass. I then want you to stare at it and form the belief that it is red, or blue, or pink, whatever you like, but not green. Or sit where you are now and believe that you don't exist, or that 2+2=5. I don't just mean consider the proposition, I mean really believe it.

There just are lots of beliefs that we cannot help but form.

Anonymous said...

Kyle S.

You said "Now, some of you are probably now thinking that I am a crazy dogmatic fundamentalist,"

Understandable bit of trauma from when Elvis put that chip in your head...:)

I generally find the more sensory input you have for a certain thing, the more you can believe it or the more difficult it becomes to disbelieve it. As you pointed out if I stare at the grass (which is indeed green at this time of year) it is incredibly difficult to persuade oneself it is red. The best I an readily manage is to close my eyes and imagine it red. If on the other hand I was sent to a barren island or imprisoned for a few years without sight of a lawn I might convince myself otherwise. If some kind person sent me (Photoshop-ed) pictures of scenes with red grass during this time I might do even better at it. In any case in the absence of input it is easier to form incorrect beliefs. If I had never seen real grass I might believe anything about it. Then of course there is the old "How many lights do you see?" approach which I would rather not experience!

Your point about senses operating at the subconscious level, as with smell, is a good one. The feelings that arise are still amenable to investigation though. Behavioral psychologists make a living from it after all.

I must admit that even if one accepts your inability to deny God's existence, the connection with the Bible (I presume you mean one of the Christian ones) sees more problematic. Unlike the Elvis letters it wasn't signed and no-one seems to have the original manuscript.
Can you remember when you first became aware of the sensation that it was the word of God? Do you get the same feeling about any of the other Holy books or writings? Great works of art?

another orphan said...

Interesting. You may not be aware of a curious aspect of this argument: one of the significant problems that Galileo faced when showing off his telescope was that the optics were rather poorly figured, so that the images were significantly distorted. Worse, it was not always easy to get the eye lined up on the optical axis - a problem that novices still face when looking through telescopes the first few times - so that sometimes you couldn't see anything. Galileo had the advantage over his colleagues of having had a lot of practice with his instrument. On top of it all, the predominant optical theory of the time held that one saw things by virtue of light emitted from the eyes and responding to the object. (Kepler was only then working up the optical theory that looks like the one we use today.) So, in addition to having trouble with seeing things through the telescope, people were theoretically biased against the idea that it could produce images of celestial objects.

Of course, it turns out that Galileo was right.

Stephen Law said...

Hi another orphan - and you're suggesting that similar is true of religious experience - the religious experience "telescope" distorts, needs experience to use properly, etc etc. but, nevertheless, is largely accurate?

I don't think that's a terribly good analogy, for several reasons - Galileo could get better at using his telescope by practising on things that he could independently verify, like the shape of distant mountains - you notice can't gain skill in this way unless there's something independent against which you can check, which there isn't for the sensus divinitatis. Second, if no one else could see Jupiter's moons moving through the telescope, they they weren't justified in taking Galileo's word for it. But that was not the case, was it? Though there was one Jesuit who famously insisted all G's observations were down to his faulty telescope, others nevertheless confirmed them. And, crucially, these observers did not contradict each other. There was a consensus on what the scope revealed. Better scopes were built, and the detail got better and better. And so on. There are all sorts of differences between that case and this that you are overlooking....

Perhaps the most important is this. ecause of the enormous differences in what people experience religiously, we know must of these experiences are at least largely deceptive (not so in Galileo's case). Yes, perhaps some of them do reveal the truth. But the point remains that there's no good reason to think so.

Stephen Law said...

By the way, the idea that a supernatural faculty is a bit like a distorting telescope or TV suffering interference, so that the image is hard to discern, this explaining disagreement and error, is a standard explanation used by psychics when they get things wrong...

I'm sure they'd like your analogy with Galileo's telescope, too... but would it really help them?

WillRees said...

Stephen, I was wondering what your position is on an indifferent non-anthropomorphic divine ground type 'god', of the perennial philosophy sort is.

What do you make of Huxley's later works, and the idea that knowledge of this divine ground can be reached, possible through the use of psychedelic drugs? Would be really interested to hear your thoughts.

sorry for the appalling quality of this post, but I wanted to ask and have 2 minutes to do so before I have to go out).