Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review of Karen Armstrong’s The Case For God

Armstrong’s latest book offers a defence of religious belief against recent attacks by those she terms “the new atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, et al. These critics, she maintains, have fundamentally misunderstood what religion is, and what “God” means.

“God”, says Armstrong, is “a symbol of indescribable transcendence”, “pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality” (307). This reality should not be thought of as a thing or person. We must not anthropomorphize God or make of him and idol, in the way the religious fundamentalists and literalists do. They too have misunderstood the meaning of the term.

Rather, says Armstrong, “God” is a symbol pointing us in the direction of something essentially unknowable, and certainly unknowable in a rational, intellectual way. Armstrong is an apophaticist, insisting that “the ultimate cannot be adequately expressed in any theoretical system, however august, because it lies beyond the reach of words and concepts”. This, Armstrong maintains, is something that “all faith systems have been at pains to show” (307)

If that is what “God” symbolizes, then what is religion? It is, says, Armstrong,

“a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle.”


By engaging in certain religious practices and forms of life, we can, maintains, Armstrong, achieve “a state of unknowing that is not frustrating but a source of astonishment, awe and contentment” (306). Religious practice has traditionally helped people to “build within them a haven of peace that enabled them to live creatively with the sorrow of life.” (246). By engaging in dedicated religious practice, people can come to live “on a higher, divine or godlike plane and thus wake up their true selves.”

In treating belief in God as a scientific hypothesis that might be confirmed or refuted, the new atheists are attacking a straw man. Indeed, it seems that, on Armstrong’s view the “new atheists” are, in a sense, doubly ignorant.

First, unlike earlier critics such as “Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, the new atheists are not theologically literate.” (293) In particular, they are ignorant of the apophatic religious tradition that sophisticated - and, according to Armstrong, entirely orthodox - theologians down through the ages have embraced. (311).

Secondly, the truth of religious doctrines is a truth that we cannot even grasp without dedicated religious practice. The truths and insights of religion thus lie beyond even the comprehension of its critics. 305.

Immunizing religion against rational criticism

This characterization of God and religion might seem to render both utterly invulnerable to any kind of rational criticism or attack.

Think you have an argument against the existence of God? You crude, unsophisticated twit - you are treating belief in God as if it were a hypothesis that might be rationally assessed!

Think religion can be rejected on rational grounds? But religion, too, is not a set of hypotheses that might be subjected to rational criticsm. Indeed, by treating religion is if it were, you betray your own crude misunderstanding!

However, on closer examination, chinks in the apophatic armour begin to appear.

Noteworthy features of religious practice

As Armstrong acknowledges, religious practice takes many forms. For example, People congregate together to sing hymns, to pray and meditate. They engage in rituals, sometimes of an elaborate nature. Some flagellate themselves. Occasionally they isolate themselves, shutting out the world. Others immerse themselves in the lives of others, by, for example, trying to alleviate suffering.

An interesting feature of many of these activities is that they are activities we know can induce interesting – sometimes rather beneficial - psychological states, even outside of a religious setting. Indeed, religions seem particularly keen on activities that can induce such altered states.

Take meditation for example. It has proven effects on both our psychology and physiology, reducing stress, inducing feelings of calm and contentment. Even atheists will meditate in order to gain these psychological and physiological benefits.

Praying is often a form of meditation, of course. Sometimes prayer and other devotional activity is accompanied by repetitive swaying or rocking motions. Such movements are known to induce a sense of well-being – the so-called “joggers high” - probably by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream (animals in zoos can also sometimes be seen responding to the stress of captivity by self-medicating in this way).

Isolation can obviously have a powerful psychological effect on people, for example by making them psychological vulnerable, easily-manipulated (it is a favourite tool of interrogators, of course).

Coming together in a large group to sing can also be a very powerful intoxicating experience, as anyone who has sat on a football terrace can testify.

If you have ever entered a large cave by torchlight, you will know that it can also be a very powerful, emotional experience - the echoing sounds, the glimpses of magnificent structures, the darkness making one apprehensive and yet excited all at the same time. The echoing grandeur of many places of worship is obviously designed to have a similar psychological effect.

Helping others in face-to-face situation can obviously be an immensely powerful psychological experience - often a deeply gratifying and positive experience.

Engaging in ritualistic activity often has a calming and beneficial effect, whether or not performed within a religious setting. For example, sportsmen and women often engage in rituals before competing (and can become very disturbed if for some reason the ritual cannot be performed because e.g. their lucky pants have been lost).

Religious practice typically involves at least some of, and usually, many of, these activities. Activities that we know can have a powerful psychological effect even outside of any religious setting.

If people collectively engage in such activities repeatedly, with dedication and great intensity of purpose, over long periods of time, we should, then, probably expect that to have a psychological effect – to produce some interesting, and quite possibly beneficial, psychological states. The regime is certainly likely to produce a heady and intoxicating psychological brew.

If, in addition, we tell the people engaging in these activities that what they are experiencing or becoming psychological attuned to is some sort of divine transcendence, then, given the extraordinary power of suggestion, there’s no doubt that this is what many of them will believe is happening. Indeed, for some there may well be no doubt in their mind that this is what is going on.

The experiences and insights that, as a result, would then coalesce around the label “God” will no doubt be complex and difficult to articulate.

There probably is a sense in which, for someone who has never been through such a regime, they can never understand what it is like for the subject, “from the inside” as it were. Those who have had such experiences will no doubt struggle to communicate their character in much same way that someone who has been through, say, a war or childbirth may also struggle – perhaps having to resort to poetry, or music in order to convey its unique intensity.

Armstrong says

“It is clear that the meditation, yoga and rituals that work aesthetically on a congregation have, when practised assiduously over a lifetime, a marked effect on the personality – an effect that is another form of natural theology. There is no ‘born again’ conversion, but a slow, incremental and imperceptible transformation… The effect of these practices cannot give us concrete information about God; it is certainly not a scientific ‘proof’. But something indefinable happens to people who involve themselves in these disciplines with commitment and talent. The ‘something’ remains opaque, however, to those who do not undergo these disciplines…” (314)

Armstrong claims that what these people gradually become attuned to is the ineffable transcendence, the ultimate reality, she calls “God”.

I guess that is possible. But how likely is it, in fact?

Given what we know about human psychology, isn’t it fairly likely that people put through such an intense regime over an extended period of time are quite likely to think they have become attuned to such a reality anyway, whether or not any such reality exists, and whether or not they have had any sort of genuine insight into it?

I don’t wish to poo-poo the value of engaging in such an exercise. It may well be that those who engage in such practices may gain some valuable insights into themselves and the human condition as a result.

And certainly there may be some positive psychological effects – a lasting sense of peace and contentment - from determinedly engaging in such activities over a long period of time, effects that will undoubtedly by magnified by the accompanying thought that what one is becoming attuned to is “God”.

But that there is such a “God” and that this is what one is becoming enlightened about by such practices is surely very dubious indeed.

Sometimes people who have had “near death” experiences claim to have experienced an indescribably wonderful light at the end of a tunnel. Often they are absolutely convinced that this light is God. However, euphoria and tunnel-vision are both a well-known result of hypoxia – lack of oxygen to the brain, hypoxia being exactly what such patients are likely to be suffering from when near death. Is it possible they are experiencing God? Yes, it is possible. But it is overwhelming more likely that they are actually suffering from hypoxia, and that they have mistakenly interpreted this experience as an awareness of some external, ineffably wonderful, reality.

The mere fact that they are convinced otherwise is hardly good evidence that we are mistaken about this. Nor will it do for them to say - "But you have not had the experience, and cannot know what it was like for me - so you cannot know!" Actually, we can still be rightly confident that, whatever our subject might happen to think, their ineffably glorious experience was a product of hypoxia, not God.

Surely, given what we know about human psychology (and I think we could add a lot more here that would lend further credibility to this explanation), by far the best explanation of what people experience (or whatever word you prefer – the “transcendental insight” they achieve, or whatever) after having engaged in religious practices with dedication over long periods of time is not that they have become attuned to some external transcendent reality, but that they have succeeded in altering their own psychology by fairly well-understood mechanisms common to both the religious and non-religious spheres, and that they have then mistakenly interpreted this alteration in themselves as their becoming attuned to such a reality.

Certainly, Armstrong has given us no good reason to suppose that this isn’t what’s going on.

116 comments:

Psye said...

It is somewhat ironic that one of Armstrong's books was instrumental in my "journey" to atheism (The Battle for God).

anticant said...

When people use terms like 'indescribable', 'ineffable', 'indefinable' etc. they really aren't worth engaging in rational discourse.

This sort of thing reminds me of the late, inimitable Anna Russell's immortal pronouncement that "Deep down inside each one of us there is something stagnant that is dormant!"

wombat said...

Re : "..the new atheists are attacking a straw man."

Well aside from the obvious rejoinder to actually read some of these people (e.g. Dawkins explicitly says he's going after the realist theologians, the fundamentalists, the Falwells, Robertsons and Haggards of this world), Armstrong seems to be trying to defend a straw man of her own construction. Having sorted out what people get out of religious practice and how they may get it she then decides it's an ineffable something called God. Why is this last step necessary? As far as I can tell its because she wants to be o the side of the guys wearing the dog collars. The rest of her work would seem to suggest she is a card carrying atheist demonstrating that throughout history gods are created by man, and the divine is an internal mental phenomenon. Sympathy with religious practice is all very well but it is surely possible to be so without the nonsense.

I suppose a tactical point is whether this mental contortion helps reach more people like Psye.

Psye would you have read the book if KA hand't been in the anti-Dawkins, "look I'm a theist too!" camp?

Sam Norton said...

Well....
i) you seem to be relying on the argument that psychology can give a (full? partial?) alternative explanation of (some? all?) religious phenomena. So what? Isn't this just the genetic fallacy? As Wittgenstein once put it, 'isn't God free to act in accordance with a calculation?' - or with the workings of human psychology?
ii) "But that there is such a “God” and that this is what one is becoming enlightened about by such practices is surely very dubious indeed." You haven't justified this assertion (at least, not in this article).
iii) is it not a remarkable thing that the overwhelming majority of humankind over time and space understands what is meant by 'transcendence'; that the different traditions have different words for how to engage with it ('God' or 'Nirvana' etc); that the way in which religious language functions is pretty well understood and inter-communicable amongst those of different traditions... but that _you_ don't 'get it'? You still seem to be wanting to say that there is no such object as 'God' - why? what is driving you on this? Do you never have the sense that perhaps there is something crucial that you are missing? You're fond of the Emperor's New Clothes analogy, but isn't there also an analogy from, eg, colour blindness, ie there comes a point when the conversation has to stop and people agree that different things are being seen? After all, how does a person who is colour blind accept the truth that they are in fact colour blind? Only because, in the end, they trust the people who tell them so (Wittgenstein again).

(Genuine questions btw, I'm not being sarcastic or anything. I've just got to a point where I find your position rather odd.)

Stephen Law said...

Sam you say

"You haven't justified this assertion (at least, not in this article)."

Yes I have. Suppose a flower grows from a seed. Ted says a fairy made it happen. Bert explains everything about the growth of the flower by natural means, pointing to the way in which cells divide, etc. etc.

Ted says, Yeh, but that's how the fairy made it happen!

Bert has justified being highly sceptical about the Bert's fairy account.

And Ted is a twit.

Steven Carr said...

An ignorant atheist is someone who cannot tell you what god people really worship.

A sophisticated theologian is someone who cannot tell you what god she really worships.


'pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality'

I have no problems effing this ineffable reality.

Steven Carr said...

SAM
i) you seem to be relying on the argument that psychology can give a (full? partial?) alternative explanation of (some? all?) religious phenomena. So what? Isn't this just the genetic fallacy? As Wittgenstein once put it, 'isn't God free to act in accordance with a calculation?' - or with the workings of human psychology?


CARR
So if people do what Armstrong says they do, and whip themselves until they feel in contact with this 'ineffable reality', then up pop Christian apologists to say that this god might very well be communicating through the whip.

It seems unlikely that in this age of mass communication, God still relies on the old-fashioned technology of a cat-of-nine-tails to spread his message.

Guilherme R. Fauque said...

Hello Stephen

This is a very interesting point of view of both religion and God.

Actually it is a very "briery" issue and I think by myself that Armstrong is trying mediate a relationship of peace between both atheist and religious. lol

Particularly I think that Armstrong is right... we need think in a balance terms.

Stephen Law said...

I will respond to Sam's other two points later...

But I would ask him now: what is it that all the different religious traditions agree about, other than that there is "something transcendent"?

The colour blindness analogy don't work, Sam. A colour blind person can test whether others have a perceptual ability they lack quite easily (think about it for a minute).

What is the analogous test of whether others have a God-sensing ability I lack?

The mere fact a lot of people say they experience something odd, and there is some uniformity to the experience, even across cultures, ain't necessarily very much evidence that there is any reality to what they experience in the case of e.g. the wee folk, dragons, etc.

wombat said...

Sam - re point iii

If that were the case then

a) Why is it that there are so may different and often antagonistic schools within these traditions?

b) Well, the overwhelming majority of humankind may have "ineffable" or equivalent in their vocabulary but those who experience it are in the infinitesimal minority. But isn't KA arguing that the only way to know what it means is to experience it. So to the overwhelming majority of humankind it is just a label applied to something that someone else feels.

c) Just because two people describe something as unknown does not mean they are talking about the same thing does it? Same with ineffable things.

ninni said...

http://www.ipod.org.uk/reality/reality_big_brother.asp

Sam Norton said...

@Stephen 4:29pm; Armstrong is saying it is a mistake to consider God to be equivalent to a fairy, you are asserting that it is not a mistake. You haven't argued for it, you've just spelt out your perspective on it. To pursue your image, it's not that Ted is saying 'a fairy did it' whilst Bert is saying 'these physical processes did it', Ted is saying 'those physical processes are growth' whilst Bert is denying that there is such a thing as 'growth'.

@Stephen 5.52; I don't think there is one essential thing that all religions hold in common, I think there is a family resemblance.

I'm happy to be educated about colour blindness, but even if that analogy fails, there are a myriad more. All that needs to be posited is that the boy who is different to the consensus (in the Emperor's New Clothes) actually isn't seeing or perceiving something which others can see or perceive. It requires argument to establish which analogy is the correct analogy in any specific argument. Reference to 'wee folk' and 'dragons' merely perpetuates your stance and doesn't advance the conversation very much. As for an analogous 'test' - well, that rather begs the question of whether what we're talking about is 'testable' doesn't it? Would you accept that something is real even if it cannot be empirically tested?

Steven Carr said...

So how do you perceive this god?

Do you hear voices?

Bertrand Russell said there is no difference between a man who drinks and sees elephants and a man who fasts and sees god.

How can you be certain the Yorkshire Ripper was not being told by a real god to butcher prostitiutes? Perhaps you just lack the sensory perception he had to pick up those messages.


Why did Christians whip themselves to experience a sense of oneness with this god?

Is whipping yourself a way of switching on senses not normally used?

Mike said...

Sam,
In your last sentence you use the word "real." If you grant that something cannot be empirically tested, what would be your alternate criterion for judging it real?

(And, assuming you come up with one, how would your criterion be distinguished from that of a schizophrenic rationalizing his hallucinations? Or if you deny the need of any objective criterion, what meaning would the word "real" have then, except as a psychological phenomenon -- i.e. a "real" mental construct?)

scott roberts said...

I'll repeat what I said on this subject (more or less) a couple of months ago: if one is an idealist (of some sort) one is likely to take seriously what mystics have to say about 'transcendence', or 'God', or 'supernatural', but if one is a materialist (of some sort), one is likely to reject it, e.g., by asserting it is all 'merely' psychological aberration (which can sometimes be a good thing). Hence, the argument on "is God real", or arguing over how to interpret mystical reports, should be postponed until it is settled on whether materialism or idealism is the better worldview.

When I raised this before, you (Stephen) said that you were not committed to materialism. I then tested that by asking if, should you be interested in getting a better understanding of consciousness you were more inclined to study neurology or to study mystics, but got no response. My attempt is to put some pragmatic value on the word 'committed'. That is, I do not assume it to mean that one is completely closed to other possibilities, but that one uses that framework by default in approaching questions about the mind, religion, morality, etc. As, of course, you have done in this post.

For example, you explain away near-death experiences as a consequence of lack of oxygen. So it may be. But as an idealist, I am more interested in how you explain the existence of any experience at all. That question has to be answered first.

Mike said...

Scott,

There is a bumper sticker that reads, "I Break for Hallucinations." I'm curious: What does an idealist break for?

(And as for the rest of us: If an object appears to be looming up ahead, should we postpone breaking until we've settled on whether materialism or idealism is the better worldview? Or afterward, when we're filling out the insurance form, must we wait to describe the facts of the accident until we can explain the existence of any experience at all?)

It sounds like idealism is an even safer refuge for religion than apophaticism.

Mike said...

Leave it to me to misspell "brake." (Three times!)

scott roberts said...

Mike,

There is a difference between "how do we address questions on mind, religion, and morality" and "how do we address all questions".

And, there is no a priori reason an idealist cannot be anti-religion (so I don't see why you would see it is a refuge). On the other hand, a materialist must reject religion. All I am saying is that the question "idealism or materialism" must be settled before there can be a fruitful argument over religion.

Steven Carr said...

SAM
Would you accept that something is real even if it cannot be empirically tested?

CARR
Of course.

There is no empirical evidence that white people are inherently superior to black people.

But millions of white people cannot be wrong if they just know that they are superior to black people.

How can we get to this feeling of innate racial superiority, which has no scientific justification?

'Secondly, the truth of religious doctrines is a truth that we cannot even grasp without dedicated religious practice.'

People cannot grasp the truth of white supremacy unless they practice believing it.


Tell yourself every day that 'The English are the best, the English are the best. I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest. The English are the best'.

After constant repetition, you will believe it.

And that is what makes white supremacy true. There are millions of people who believe it, so that makes it true.

anticant said...

Scott says:

There is a difference between "how do we address questions on mind, religion, and morality" and "how do we address all questions".

What is the difference?

Sam Norton said...

@ Mike 11.44; your question reveals quite an attachment to the language of subjective/objective and all the empirical metaphysical baggage to go with it. I'm quite fond of Robert Pirsig's work generally, and in particular the way in which he gets around that particular briar patch by asking us to imagine what a world would look like if something wasn't real. If it is unrecognisable then, even if it doesn't show up from empirical methods, we can be justified in accepting something as real. (He uses this method to establish the existence of 'quality' but the same could be said of, eg 'love'.)

Steven Carr said...

SAM
(He uses this method to establish the existence of 'quality' but the same could be said of, eg 'love'.)

CARR
Let me get this straight.

There is absolutely zero empirical evidence that Sam Norton loves 6 year old boys.

But we are still allowed to discuss whether this alleged love is real or not, despite the total lack of any empirical evidence whatsoever for it?

I think Sam should try going to a Family Court, and telling the judge that neither parent in a custody case can produce empirical evidence that the child is loved.

The judge will respond that he is paid to judge this empirical evidence of love that Christian apologists claim can never exist.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I think God is an idealisation of the self. It is certainly something completely internal rather than external, and I've never understood why anyone wants to convert someone else to 'their God'.

I haven't read The Case for God, but I read The History of God over a decade ago - certainly the book that made her name, and I still think it's the best book on religion I've read. She covers, not only the 3 monotheistic religions, but also Hinduism and Buddhism, albeit not in the same depth.

Regards, Paul.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Scott

Why do we have to settle whether or not idealism (and also phenomenalism, etc.) might be true before we can address the question of whether or not certain experiences are reliable?

After all, we don't have to settle the question of whether there is intelligent life on other planets before we can justifiably conclude that those claiming to have been abducted by aliens are probably deluded.

But in any case Berkeley's idealism is easily refuted - if a physical object is a set of ideas, then because the set of ideas I get when I turn this pen sideways is different, it follows it is a different physical object. Which it isn't (as B acknowledges). QED. Of course phenomenalism doesn't have this problem.

Stephen Law said...

Sam, I am giving you an argument.

Armstrong simply ASSERTS that what those who have transcendent experiences after years of dedicated religious practice are experiencing is an external reality.

I claimed this was dubious.

My argument for sying it's dubious is: the various practices they engage in are known to produce altered psychological states anyway, even outside of a religious setting. Often the resulting states do not appear to involve any awareness of an external reality (e.g. rocking back and forth, etc., feeling good about helping others, [note even the results of deep meditation don't necessarily to present themselves in that way - atheists meditate too, and don't think of what they experience as an awareness of some transcendent reality]).

Put several of these practices together with intensity over a long period of time, and add the suggestion that what they experience is external divine transcendence, and of course many people will believe that is what they are experiencing, whether or not they are.

Thus there is little reason to suppose that this is what they are experiencing. It MIGHT be. But there are pretty good grounds for being dubious.

I am relying on this principle: X is not good evidence for Y if X would probably still obtain even if Y were not true.

I suspect your position is: let's assume there is a divine transcendence and that people can experience it. Well now there's every reason to think that this is exactly what's going on in these cases. You think that the onus is on me to disprove your starting assumption, right?

Stephen Law said...

Sam, your colour blindness example is an attempt to show that I am being unreasonable in not accepting that the religious are having some sort of reliable experience I simply lack, right? For it is not unreasonable of the colour blind to suppose others have such colour experiences.

But of course a colour blind person has this confirmation: others can reliably distinguish objects just by looking in a way the colour blind person can't - e.g. their own car from among several of same make and model (but different colour). There is no analogous ability the religious can demonstrate (if there is, point it out). So the colour blind person does have good grounds for thinking others have such an ability. But why do I (re. religious experience)?

Your only answer can be, I think, mere consistency of experience across cultures, etc. You seem to offer this argument: what is the explanation for this consistency, if not that the experience is accurate? That it is accurate is the best explanation.

But actually consistency is not unlikely anyway, for many very obvious reasons, whether or not the experience is reliable. Can't you think of some reasons?

Sam Norton said...

@ Stephen 8:51; to deal with the last comment first, yes indeed I believe that there is a transcendent reality with which it is possible to engage (no surprise there surely) but I also think it perfectly reasonable to say that the onus of proof is on you to demonstrate otherwise. As I said before, the overwhelming majority of people across time and space, across all beliefs and none, recognise what is being talked about, whatever disagreements then arise about the detail, they accept that the conversation is a legitimate one. Your position is that this is all nonsense (I'm reminded of Wittgenstein again: is it really a _mistake_ when Augustine calls upon God in every page of the Confessions?!). I think it is your position that needs to demonstrate its truth. You could say: it is the proposal to change the status quo that needs to make the running, not the idea that the status quo can simply chug along as before.

To bring out why I think you are simply asserting your position (and not demonstrating it) I ask in all seriousness: do you love your children/ partner/ parents etc? Surely exactly the same methodology could be used about this 'love' as you have used about the language of God, ie it can be redescribed in terms of evolution, psychology and hormonal balances and so on. Would you then be happy to accept that 'love' is an illusion and doesn't exist? If yes, then, frankly, that's a conversation stopper because the gulf between us is too great; if no then your argument falls.

@ Stephen 9:06; as mentioned, the colour blindness example is simply a corresponding analogy to the Emperor's New Clothes one, and if colour blindness doesn't work, lets take something different, like autism. It's also question begging to rely on empirical science as the judge, but I'll let Scott take that conversation forward.

Steven Carr said...

So people on LSD see god.

Which hallucogenic drugs in which cultures give genuine experiences of this god?

And which ones give Muslim experiences of their god? - the one who has no son called Jesus, and will send Christians to Hell for their blasphemy.

There is no difference between a man who drinks alcohol and sees elephants and a man who fasts and sees god.

Anonymous said...

If something "lies beyond the reach of words and concepts" then what are we even talking about? Isn't it a contradiction - defining something as indefinable.

Stephen Law said...

re a transcendent reality with which it is possible to engage - "the onus is on you to prove otherwise"

I don't claim to have proven otherwise - certainly not here. You are chaninging the subject.

I claim that there are grounds for being dubious about the claim that what religious folk experience when they engage in these practices is some external divine reality. I have given you an argument which you keep on ignoring...

Your love analogy - love is something people obviously experience - we can establish they they do by what they say and do.

That people have experiences after engaging in such activities is also something we can establish.

It's the status of those experiences - the claim that they reveal some external divine reality, that I claim is dubious.

Your love analogy is odd because no one is claiming the experience does not exist (which would be the analogy with claiming love does not exist). It's as if you are trying to suggest I am claiming the experience does not exist because it can be explained by certain naturalistic means? Of course I am not. It's not the experience that is in doubt, it is its ability to reveal some external reality.

Hopefully you will now deal directly with my argument, Sam, rather than wheel out more confusing and irrelevant analogies.

Also, as you are so fond of quoting Wittgenstein, how can there be a difference between two experiences that have identical outward manifestations - i.e. one supposedly produced by God, the other produced by prolonged engagement in certain mind-altering activities combined with power of suggestion? I am prepared to accept in principle there can, but your favourite source of quotes actually denies this! If you claim there is an outward difference - what is it? If you think there isn't - how can I, or indeed you, know which one you are having?

But then surely a somewhat sceptical attitude is, then, justified? Fro me at least...

Stephen Law said...

Anon said: "If something "lies beyond the reach of words and concepts" then what are we even talking about? Isn't it a contradiction - defining something as indefinable."

The apophaticist on the one hand says it is unknowable, but on the other hand says that it is. When the critic is in the room, God is unknowable, when the believer is in the room, all sorts of claims start being made (even if understood analogically, of course!) The apophaticists game is to switch back and forth, thereby endlessly frustrating their critics, while giving the traditionally believer pretty much what they had before, only understood "analogically".

Stephen Law said...

For example, Armstrong says that God is indescribable and lies beyond our comprehension, yet also seems to want to say that God is amenable to "a different kind of knowing", 306 and indeed herself describes God as being "absolute goodness, beauty, order, peace, truthfulness, justice" 246

She appears to endorse the view that "the natural world can tell us nothing about God" 310, yet four pages later says we can "glimpse its traces or effects in our time-bound, sense-bound world." 314.

It's what I call "now you see it, now you don't".

wombat said...

I seem to remember reading in "A History of God one of KA's earlier books, that she herself has never really experienced this divine reality even though she spent a good deal of time trying - becoming a nun and trying rather hard.

From the intro:

"Eventually, with regret, I left the religious life and once freed of the burden of failure and inadequacy I felt my belief in God slip quietly away. He had never really impinged upon my life, though I had done my best to enable him to do so. Now that I no longer felt so guilty and anxious about him, he became too remote to be a reality."

K. Armstrong "A History of God" (1993) p 2

Hmmm....

theObserver said...

Wittgenstein quotes ,tooth fairy analogies, claims of argumentum ad populum fallacies and aspect blindness. I see the heavy weapons have been deployed!

*settles down with popcorn*

Do these religious family resembles include the human sacrificing practices of religions like the Aztecs, various African tribes and the classic ‘throwing people into a volcano’ so GodNotaThing won’t destroy the village? Or do we just include the nice(ish) ones?

anticant said...

It's all smoke and mirrors. Just like Gordon Brown pretending to be the Wizard of Oz.

How they all hate it when sceptical little Toto twitches the curtain away.

Sam Norton said...

@Stephen 12.21;
"re a transcendent reality with which it is possible to engage - "the onus is on you to prove otherwise" I don't claim to have proven otherwise - certainly not here."
In your post you say "by far the best explanation of what people experience ... is not that they have become attuned to some external transcendent reality, but that they have succeeded in altering their own psychology". What is that claim if not that there is no transcendent reality being engaged with? You'll have to spell out the difference for me.

Mike said...

Sam,
When something can be explained through direct observation and logical inference, an alternate explanation that requires an unverifiable hypothesis is unwarranted. Stephen doesn't have to "explain" that fairies aren't the cause of a flower's growth in order to discredit the idea of fairies. He need only point out that a better (i.e. observable, verifiable) explanation is already available. The onus IS on you.

theObserver said...

Derren Brown is a skeptic who tried to get various religious leaders to embrace and endorse his spiritual powers. The episodes I recommend here have to do with Derren converting other skeptics with the touch of his hand in front of an evangelical pastor, and he pulled it off Link to videos
I remember being impressed by this when I first saw it.

scott roberts said...

Anticant,

What is the difference??

The obvious difference is that the one is a small subset of the other. Mike seemed to be saying that I was implying that how one drives a car depends on one's metaphysics. Obviously it doesn't, and I wasn't. How one does mathematics, and how one does science (if one does good science), and how one drives a car, do not depend on one's metaphysics. But how one interprets mystical reports will depend on whether or not one is an idealist or a materialist.

Stephen,

Why do we have to settle whether or not idealism (and also
phenomenalism, etc.) might be true before we can address the question
of whether or not certain experiences are reliable?


Because some mystical experiences are not the same sort of thing as experiences of the physical world. So different, indeed, that the word 'experience' becomes problematic. There are a wide variety of mystical reports, and I accept that some are lies and many are delusional. But there are also those of what I consider "first-class" mystics in which the mystic claims to experience the physical world in its entirety as contingent, as derived from consciousness, for example. So the question is: is what they say true?

Your argument is that we can plausibly argue that much of what is called religious experience is delusional, in the sense that it is not a real God (or whatever) that is being experienced. My reaction to that is: yes, but all that is accomplishing is weeding out the second-class mystics. Which is a good thing to do. But your argument carries no weight in discrediting the first-class mystics. (I have in mind in particular one who is fully cognizant of modern standards of evidence and philosophical rigor, namely Franklin Merrell-Wolff. Another one is Bernadette Roberts.)

The only way, as far as I can tell, to reject what these first-class mystics report is to say "materialism is true, therefore, what they say is untrue". Which is not to say that one cannot be agnostic about what they say, as one can be agnostic over the materialism/idealism question.

The difference between judging first-class mystics versus judging alien abductions and the like is that the latter can be judged based on one's experience as an observer in a physical world, while the former raise questions about "observers in the physical world" itself. Materialists have one set of answers to those questions, idealists have a different set of answers.

anticant said...

Scott:

Please define what you mean by an 'idealist' and a 'materialist'.

Are they mutually exclusive?

scott roberts said...

Anticant,

For purposes of discussion here, that is, not rigorously, but I think well enough that discussion can go forward, I define materialism as the viewpoint that all mentality has an ontological basis in the non-mental, while idealism is the viewpoint that all that appears as non-mental has an ontological basis in the mental. And, yes, I consider them mutually exclusive as metaphysical viewpoints. Once can also, of course, be a dualist, but unless anyone claims to be so here, I think we can ignore that possibility.

Anonymous said...

Hello All

Stephen@8:31 AM
"But in any case Berkeley's idealism is easily refuted - if a physical object is a set of ideas, then because the set of ideas I get when I turn this pen sideways is different, it follows it is a different physical object. Which it isn't (as B acknowledges). QED. Of course phenomenalism doesn't have this problem."

Idealism is not refuted so easily.

Real idealism goes like this: if a physical object is a set of ideas, then because the set of ideas I get when I turn this pen sideways is different, it follows that... the object is physically different. Which it is.

Same pen, same idea. Different pen, different idea.

anticant said...

Scott,

I am not a dualist; I think that mind and matter are inextricably linked in our consciousness.

Read Lakoff and Johnson: "Philosophy in the Flesh".

You doubtless know the story of Dr Johnson's retort to the sceptical lady who announced that she accepted the universe: "By God, Madam, you'd better!"

Paul P. Mealing said...

People find transcendence in mathematics, music and art – it’s not confined to religion. It’s the sense that there is something abstract that exists beyond the mind. In all cases it’s a subjective experience that can’t be shared or explained. People forget that even consciousness is a subjective experience that can’t be explained. In fact, if everyone didn’t experience consciousness, science would no doubt tell us it doesn’t exist, in the same way that science tells us that free will doesn’t exist. Transcendence, be it in art or music or religion or, for that matter, mathematics, is consciousness at a different level to what we normally experience.

Regards, Paul.

anticant said...

I don't think it's abstract, Paul: it's innate. The issue is whether we have any justification for claiming that our subjective experiences of imagination, mysticism, and spiritual enlightenment are objectively "true" in any universal sense.

If no-one was aware of consciousness - i.e. their own inner being - there would be no science. Or religion. Or art.

Why cannot people be content to accept that their own spiritual experiences are true for them, without seeking to thrust them - often by force - upon everybody else?

So many actual and verbal conflicts resemble two bald men fighting over a comb.

Stephen Law said...

Sam

I don't claim to have "proved" (here) there is no transcendent not-a-thing. I claim there's good grounds for being dubious that that is what the religious experience after engaging in such practices. In the same way that someone who does not claim to have proved aliens never visit the Earth might still insist with justification that aliens are not the best explanation for alien abduction and other such experiences. See?

Anon's idealism is non-standard - and would seem to include phenomenalism, for example.

But anon is wrong to say berkelian idealism is not thus refuted. That idealism identifies a physical object with a *set* of ideas. Change the members of a set, and you have a numerically distinct set. Thus, change the ideas and you have a numerically distinct object. Turn the pen, and it's a brand new pen you see. The number of pens observed is 2, not 1.

wombat said...

Paul P Mealing - "People forget that even consciousness is a subjective experience that can’t be explained."

Don't be such a defeatist! I think that its worth both scientists and philosophers making the attempt. Of course if you've a proof it can't even i principle be explained it would save a lot of energy. Better surely is -

"People forget that even consciousness is an experience which has not yet been satisfactorily explained."

And that's assuming you didn't like Dan Dennetts book.

Sam Norton said...

@ Stephen 8:25;
No I don't see.
You have said that there is a possible alternative explanation for some religious phenomena, and that this is more likely than the hypothesis (vocabulary) of 'God'.
Armstrong says (paraphrase): when people talk about God this is what they are talking about.
So essentially, you are arguing that your vocabulary is better than hers, and I don't see why - unless this is just supplementary to a wider argument that (on other grounds) there is no such thing as 'God'.
(Is this an extract from a book? It'd probably make more sense if it was.)

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Wombat,

I thought I might raise the spectre of Daniel C. Dennett with that comment.

To be perfectly honest, I haven't read his book (and I probably should) but Paul Davies listed it as 2 of the 4 'most influential books' he's read, with the comment: ‘...may not live up to its claim... it definitely set the agenda for how we should think about thinking.’ But he also added the caveat that ‘some people say Dennett explained consciousness away’.

I read a 2 part interview with Daniel Dennett in Philosophy Now, and he's a formidable and respected philosopher by anyone's standards. But he takes the extreme view, and quotes David Chalmers that 'a thermostat thinks', which means that either thermostats are sentient or sentience isn't required for 'thinking'. Philosophially, I don't agree with either position.

Whilst we can find correlations between neuron activity and conscious experience, it's the subjective aspect that evades explanation. I'm not sure we'll ever understand how consciousness as a 'subjective' experience emerges in the sense of an emergent phenomenon. By the way, the best book I've read on the subject is John Searle's Mind, which he qualifies as 'an introduction'.

Hi anticant,

I pretty well agree with everything you say, but, in particular, your third para about someone forcing their specific interpretation of their subjective experience onto everyone else.

Regards, Paul.

Martin said...

I have a simple example of something which is both real (it exists in the world) and unprovable (there is no test to show it exists).

It's those kind of thoughts we all have that go: "I'd like a piece of toast for breakfast".

I know it is true and real, but you cannot ever test it. If I do turn the toaster on and put bread in it you might infer it was true, and if I rush out of the door without eating you might infer it was not real. But that's as far as you can go.

Everything that Armstrong says about God you can also say about "toast thoughts". It is a symbol of indescribable transcendence, and it points beyond itself to an ineffable reality. It's not a thing or a person. It's a symbol pointing us in the direction of something essentially unknowable in a rational, intellectual way.

It may seem a bit bizarre to describe "toast thoughts" in this way, because we all have thoughts like them in a very mundane fashion. They are so common we don't realise they are transcendental.

Sam Norton's point about a family resemblance is easily dealt with with "toast thoughts" about undercooked or burnt, and strawberry or blackcurrant jam on top. The "thought" is the same, the practice can be quite different.

Contemplating toast is “a state of unknowing that is not frustrating but a source of astonishment, awe and contentment”. Can you show me why my thoughts about toast are any different from Armstrong's thoughts about God? If you had never seen a loaf of bread in your life, you might even think I was talking about God.

Sam Norton said...

@ Martin - I enjoyed that post.

For want of time a brief reply - it's all in the eating....

wombat said...

Paul -

Glad to oblige with Dennett! Funnily enough it's one of his books I haven't read either although its definitely on the ever lengthening list.

As we are in a rather bookish thread I'll take the opportunity to plug (again) Antonio Damasio's "The Feeling of What Happens: body emotion and the making of consciousness". He's a neurophysiologist and comes at it from his long experience in clinical practice. While most of us have been exposed to thought experiments like the "brain in a vat", various kinds of zombie and so forth, he is able to draw on case histories of patients who have suffered various forms of degradation of their ability to think, feel, remember or experience consciousness.

His account seems plausible even if details are still to be resolved.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Wombat,

Again, I've read articles by Damasio, specifically in Scientific American, but none of his books.

A book in a similar vein is Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which is excellent reading. It's also a collection of case studies of people whose minds have gone wrong in various ways, which gives extraordinary insights, and also ways that the brain tries to compensate.

There is no doubt that there is a cause and effect between the brain and the way we think. But the fact that we think at all, in a way that we know we do, is still a mystery in my view.

Regards, Paul.

Mike said...

Congratulations, Martin. You've just proven the existence of subjectivity.

wombat said...

Paul -
I think where Prof Damasio scores is not simply in relating the bits of brain to influences on thought, but on how the components of consciousness are built up, that is to say from quite high level abstractions like memory, emotion, feelings, mental images, distinction of boundary between body and the external world and so on. In summary "consciousness is the feeling of knowing."

scott roberts said...

wombat,

Of course if you've a proof [consciousness] can't
even in principle be explained it would save a lot of energy.


I don't have a proof (proofs only exist in mathematics), but I do have an argument. It is simply a materialist assumption that to "understand consciousness" one should seek a scientific explanation, meaning that 'consciousness' is 'to be explained' in terms of measurable objective properties. But what if (as Kant said) 'measurable objective properties' are products of consciousness? Then the materialist project is circular: trying to explain consciousness in terms of consciousness. It also means that physics has all along been a study of the psyche. (For a slightly more elaborate argument, see here). However, the point I have been trying to make is not whether or not I am correct, but that it is a bet that one makes on where one expends one's energy. You bet one way, on neurology, I bet another way, on mysticism (which in some ways requires even more energy). They are both cases of "faith seeking understanding", albeit faith in a metaphysical position, not in revelation. Hence, I am not being 'defeatist'. From my point of view, I am being a realist.

By the way, I've read Dennett, but for me it was a waste of time, as he is just arguing against other materialists (like Searle). Sort of like theologians....

Anonymous said...

Stephen@8:25 AM
"Anon's idealism is non-standard - and would seem to include phenomenalism, for example.

But anon is wrong to say berkelian idealism is not thus refuted. That idealism identifies a physical object with a *set* of ideas. Change the members of a set, and you have a numerically distinct set. Thus, change the ideas and you have a numerically distinct object. Turn the pen, and it's a brand new pen you see. The number of pens observed is 2, not 1."

I only said *idealism* is not so easily refuted. I have never seen a refutation of it and I don't see how one is possible. The application I made of it is by no means non-standard and used to go universally by the name of 'realism' until, without a hint of irony, nominalism claimed that label for itself.

Not being an expert on or a defender of Berkeley, I can't say whether he was as incoherent and illogical as you claim. Certainly, Dr Johnson kicking a rock did not, in fact, refute him "thus" and instead showed he had chosen a painful way to demonstrate that he hadn't understood Berkeley (or, indeed, Plotinus or Plato).

As you say: "idealism identifies a physical object with a *set* of ideas." Please note that the object itself is not a member of that set - all of it's physical attributes are, however. This is the point not to miss if you want to get the *idea* of idealism rather than one of its many mischaracterisations. You can see right away that the object itself is not considered as being entirely or even primarily physical.

The relative position of the pen is indeed a member of the set of ideas with which the pen is identified - the pen itself is not. Turn the pen and you have changed one of its physical attributes, i.e., one of the members of the set. It remains the same pen, even if you break it or smash it to pieces. We can keep on talking about that pen after we have utterly destroyed it and it's still *that* pen - that set - that we're talking about.

The materialist says - as you have, in effect - that the pen belongs entirely to the set of its physical attributes, all of which are observable and measurable in principle (objects are determined by their attributes). The idealist says that the attributes belong to the pen (attributes are determined by their objects).

It's eay, then, to see why idealism used to be called realism. For the idealist, things are real, although they do not acquire that reality from their substance but rather from the essence that they represent. As representations of essences, they may or may not have substance - it's the essence that is important.

It's also worth noting that it is towards the study of everything essential that idealism is oriented - not towards the materiality of pens and things. You end up looking at and living in an entirely different world if you go down this road - the way to life, truth, happiness, pick your favourite quality from the abundance.

If we follow through on the true materialist point of view, there is no pen. Everything arrives out of nothing through randomness and chance, things come together briefly and then fall apart and it all ends in nothing. Since every materialist is a human being and can't actually live without essences, no materialist ever tries to be consistent with their philosophy and lives. They smuggle their idealism back into their hearts, whether they see this clearly or not, and vigorously profess their hard-nosed philosophies. It's probable that no materialist genuinely understands what they claim to think because it is literally illogical - in a world of no things, where minds are illusions and people unreal, reason collapses, values disappear and the world itself is voided of life. Isn't that us and our world that I just described? We have to turn around - the road is straighter and the view is better!

I was just passing and wanted to flag up what I thought was missing. Thanks for reading this.
I wish you all well.

Number of pens 1, number of observations 2 :)

wombat said...

Scott - Doesn't it mean the "materialist project" is circular anyhow since it explains matter in terms of other matter.
Either materialism or idealism seems prone to this doesn't it?

scott roberts said...

Stephen,

You say: The apophaticist on the one hand says it is unknowable, but on the other hand says that it is. When the critic is in the room, God is
unknowable, when the believer is in the room, all sorts of claims start being made (even if understood analogically, of course!) The apophaticists game is to switch back and forth, thereby endlessly frustrating their critics, while giving the traditionally believer pretty much what they had before, only understood "analogically".


It is important to remember that apophaticism is as old as theology, that its purpose is not to duck criticism of non-believers, but to warn believers against idolatry, which occurs when the analogical/metaphorical is taken literally. Naturally, when the non-believer takes things literally that the believer shouldn't, one points out to the non-believers that they are making an error.

It was never a case of apophaticism versus cataphaticism. One can say much about God. The apophatic just adds the warning that nothing one says is definitive. As is the case in other topics, like art or meaning.

wombat said...

Scott -

Re: Warning against idolatry.

Well thats all right then. What we are all united against is realist apophatists and apophatic realists, as opposed to real apophatics who either know it's not real or really don't know.

Glad that's sorted out.

scott roberts said...

wombat,

Doesn't it mean the "materialist project" is circular anyhow since it explains matter in terms of other matter.

Well, no one is trying to explain "matter". I assume what you are saying is that the materialist (when doing science) is explaining certain configurations of what s/he assumes to be matter in terms of other configurations of what is assumed to be matter. But, of course, that assumption is unnecessary as far as science is concerned. It is not circular as long as the two configurations are different. In fact, in doing science, both the materialist and the idealist are explaining certain configurations of sense perceptions in terms of other configurations of sense perceptions (except in the case of modern physics, where the "other configurations" are mathematical, not sense perceptible.)

But the issue at hand is the problem of finding an explanation of sense perception itself. The neuroscientist uses senses (instrumentally enhanced) to find various configurations of neural states that correlate with certain sense perceptions, but has absolutely no clue as to what turns the correlated configuration of neural state into the sense perception. To me it is obvious that this is an unsolvable problem, because all that the senses can provide are ever finer configurations of the end result (the sense percepts) of the perceiving process. There is always going to be "and then a miracle occurs" in any attempt at a scientific explanation which starts with sense percepts to explain the perceiving process.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Anon,

I would consider myself a materialist. I do not come to the same conclusions as you. You make presuppositions about what 'life' etc. must be and then claim that reality from a materialist perspective does not produce your version of what these things must be and therefor is illogical or inconsistant. Sam does the same when he mentions love. For Sam, if love is a product of nothing more than hormones etc. etc. then love is not 'real'. That makes no sense. Love is real, it just isn't what Sam wants it to be. He is so convicted that his 'otherness' view of such phenomenon is correct that if you don't accept that, there can be no conversation.

If Armstrong is to hold to her own views then she should not refer to religious expereience in any group sense. She shouldn't be using terms like we and they to describe groups of people experiencing something indescribable. It is nessesarily true that people having these expereiences can never describe them to one another. They cannot know that they are experiencing an even similar 'experience'. It would be as well to say that there are as many Gods as there are such experiences.

I agree entirely with Stephen in that this is a bait and switch effort. God is unknowable, indescribable..etc. and yet somethings are none-the-less said about God.
Is it ok to say God is 'experience'able. Isn't that a kind of knowing?
If God is truely as ineffebale as all that, isn't it tremedously presumptuous to assume that Armstrong is even addressing 'God' as any particular reader might interpret it. If you are simply saying that God is just a label that we a putting on any undescribable experience then God has been reduced to nothing more than a label.

Sam points to a family of experiences that seem common to religious practitioners. Stephen's explaination covers that. If he is suggesting that psychological and physiological phemomenon are a more likely explaination, then isn't the similarity in experience to be expected from all religious traditions. Presumably all the traditions are made up of human beings. Our brains all working in a reasonably similar way. Why would you think that one group of practioners should experiece something 'indescribable' and others wouldn't? Sam seems to be trying to pull another bait and switch here. He is implying that all of these people are experiencing roughly the same thing while admitting that the experience is at the same time ineffable and indescribable. They are have a common experience that they have no way of knowing is even remotely similar to each other. If you want to say that the similar experience is of something that can be described, i.e. 'transcendant' (that is a description of a concept in the same way that 'lovel' is) then it isn't ineffable or unknowable. It is an experience but that does not mean that anything at all exists beyond the experience itself. When people spin around in circles very quickly they become dizzy and they have an experience that the world is moving around them. Of course, the world doesn't move, they only percieve that it does. This earth-moving experience can be easily attained by just spinning around in a circle. In essence, it is an experience that is brought about by adhering to a particular ritual.

anticant said...

This lady is a sophisticated apologist for any mode of thought calling itself religious - not least the 'Religion of Peace' which is so intent upon demonising, subduing, and quite frequently killing those whom it dubs 'infidels'.

wombat said...

scott - "...absolutely no clue as to what turns the correlated configuration of neural state into the sense perception."

Well we are not there yet are we!

I don't see this (yet) as a problem in principle though. It seems to me that we are in a situation a bit like a very junior mathematician being shown numbers. They are all different and in no discernible pattern. Each is accompanied by a description "odd" or "even". After a while we can expect that the essential property which makes a number "odd" or "even" will become clear.

Back to perception.

Given the very large numbers of brain cells and the numbers of states they can all have it may well be that the problem is insoluble for practical reasons but impossibility in principle I do not yet accept. If you were right then the best we would be able to do is simply enumerate the brain states and label them say "had a good lunch", "remembering the scent of roses" or whatever. We could not tell when presented with a never before seen state what it would relate to. There are some hints that this is not the case. If it were, then for a start our memory would be spectacularly unreliable. Inevitable small inaccuracies from say thermal motion of molecules would result in radical differences each time we called to mind a particular sensation. But our memories work better than that so there must at least be families of patterns or bits of patterns which are robust to small differences.
The again there are the experiments which directly stimulate the brain. Not of course ones which stimulate bits early on in sensory processing, thats no more convincing than say using an electrode to stimulate a nerve in the eye to give the sensation of something like a bright blue spot. I'm thinking here more of areas which relate to the interpretation of sensory input. The fact that there is at least some degree of physical localisation suggests that we may be able to further improve our predictive capability when examining a neural pattern.

scott roberts said...

wombat,

Even with all that, the question still remains: whether or not conscious events "just are" those neural states. One possibility where they are not is, as an analogy, one can find all sorts of ways that fiddling with a televison's components result in specific changes to what shows on the screen, but one cannot infer from that that what appears on the screen is completely determined by the state of its components. There is also a transmission involved. But nothing in what you describe can distinguish between the TV model versus the emergence model of materialism.

But my objection is different. It is that, no matter how detailed a map of the neural structure you might have, there is no way to get from it an explanation of how sensation happens. The nervous system is made out of electrons and atomic nuclei. Consider a system where one electron emits a photon, and another absorbs it. Is there consciousness in such a system? If so, then you are already an idealist, so presume there isn't. Now consider a gazillion units, all highly structured into what we call a nervous system. But each interaction between two units is separated in space and/or time from every other interaction. What miracle occurs so that the sum total of these interactions produces the sensation of seeing a red splotch? You can't get any bigger sensation than that of a single interaction without transcending space and/or time.

Actually, the preceding argument does not show that there is more to consciousness than the workings of a nervous system. What it does show is that if consciousness is nothing more than those workings, then those workings transcend space and time. But science can only explore the spatiotemporal (how do we measure the non-spatiotemporal?). Now there is a possible out if one considers quantum mechanics, in which some theorists are speculating that space and time are derivative, not fundamental. But if that works out, I would say that we are more in idealist territory than materialist.

Paul P. Mealing said...

In reference to religious experiences (therefore God) I’ve made this reference before (possibly when we were discussing Dawkins’ The God Delusion): New Scientist, 1 September 2007, pp32—6; a feature article by Helen Philips called ‘Is God good?’ In it she quotes research done by Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania on ‘Brain imaging experiments... indicate that people in religious or meditative states show a transient decrease in brain activity in regions representing our map of the body and our sense of self. Religious feelings do seem to be quite literally self-less.’

There is a caveat that not everyone has these experiences. It seems obvious to me, though, that anyone who does have such a psychological experience would logically rationalise it within the cultural context that they are familiar with. That is how the same experience can have such diverse interpretations, and, also, similar interpretations. As I’ve said all along, it’s purely subjective, and can’t be shared, but like the example that Stephen gave about colour, if various people have a similar experience within the same cultural context then they may agree that they had the same experience and therefore 'agree' that they believe in the same God.

We can all agree that a car coloured red is red, the same colour as a red tile, say, but it’s only because we have a consensus of that. The colour only exists in our minds, not out there. Different species see different colours to us. Monkeys with bioptic vision (we have trioptic) don’t see colours that we do, but they can if we genetically engineer them (it’s been done). Using an experiment, like the one Stephen hypothesised, we can then test them to show that they can see colours that they couldn’t see before. However, there is no external God by which one can make the same test, as Stephen pointed out, yet people who have a ‘self-less’ experience may nevertheless agree that they had the same experience and attach, or project, a cultural icon to it.

In regard to Wombat’s comment on memory, there are 2 types of memory: episodic and semantic. Semantic memory is dealing with facts, like I’m attempting to do now, but episodic memory deals with recalling an event or experience. To reference the work of Frederic Bartlett, episodic memories are reconstructed in a way that we recollect the ‘gist’ of an event rather than any particular detail. To quote Brian Boyd (On the Origin of Stories; Evolution, Cognition and Fiction): ‘Tellingly for this constructive episodic simulation hypothesis, imagining the future recruits most of the same brain areas as recalling the past… to provide a form of “life simulator” that allows us to test options without trying them in real life.’ (Emphasis in the original.)

In other words, episodic memory is ‘imagined’, because, as Boyd points out, we remember experiences primarily in anticipation of having to deal with the same experiences in the future. Memory in our brains does not work the way it does in computers. I think the subjective nature of consciousness will never be explained, but I admit my view is in the minority.

Regards, Paul.

wombat said...

Scott -

"You can't get any bigger sensation than that of a single interaction without transcending space and/or time. "

What you seem to have described could be more like the causal chain which results in the state which represents "sensation of seeing a red splotch" hence the apparent temporal extension.

Allowing that the mind has temporal extension is not a problem per se surely? We are familiar with plenty of dynamic phenomena - waves on the sea, spinning tops - which have a dynamic component; perhaps this is the case with consciousness too. The pattern either includes the dynamic or (probably equivalently) can be seen as including one or more prior states.

In any case I would not say that having an extension in space and time is transcending it at all. Otherwise we would be faced with the same problem with a heap of sand. Is "heapiness" transcendent just because it extends in space and time?

Andrew Louis said...

Stephen,

I though the “Love” example was quite nice actually – not to mention Scott’s Materialism/ Idealism distinction. You stated:

“Your love analogy - love is something people obviously experience - we can establish they do by what they say and do.” (Isn’t God something that people OBVIOUSLY experience for the same reasons? By looking at what they say and do?)

You passed this analogy by as the result of everyone agreeing that what is being experienced is love – since our ideas on love correspond, than love is right and true. Or in the vary least, it’s generally accepted that love (and the surrounding language of love) is an adequate and well understood final language for expressing what we all seem to be experiencing. Further, no one considers it more accurate, or for that matter more appropriate to explain love on materialist grounds, i.e. rather then state I love my wife, we’ll merely report the state of (say) our neurons, or, as has been stated, resort to evolutionary arguments. Of course, the materialist’s account of love is mere reductionism, and never gets any closer to what love is, but merely gives us a different mode of discourse which serves a different purpose.

We might be tempted say that when religious person “A” is in some “spiritual state” “X”, that it is this state which is the cause of his transcendent feelings about God, and not God himself; which is really to follow the path of materialism (the appearance/reality distinction) and to suggest that one is the underlying reality of the other, or that one was merely a metaphor for the other.

If we all agree that love is something real that we all experience, and that it cannot be reduced to neural states, then it should follow quite nicely that God is a similar phenomenon. Or to put it another way - if there is no God as the result of being able to reduce it to psychological states, then there is no love as the result of being able to reduce it in the same way. Love causes love, in much the same way God causes God.

But surely you’re not suggesting that?

PS,
this thing has spell check now!!

scott roberts said...

wombat,

What connects one link of the chain with the next? What allows for the inclusion of a prior state with the current one?

In any case I would not say that having an extension in space and time is transcending it at all. Otherwise we would be faced with the same problem with a heap of sand. Is "heapiness" transcendent just because it extends in space and time?

No, heapiness would not be transcendent. It is our awareness of heapiness that would be. But my statement ("You can't get any bigger sensation than that of a single interaction without transcending space and/or time.") is the conclusion I reach if I assume that the world that I observe is fundamentally spatiotemporal. I perceive, as you say, all sorts of dynamic, extended things, so there is a contradiction. Hence I conclude that the assumption is incorrect, that reality is not fundamentally spatiotemporal. Now that raises the question: where do space and time come from? Well, Kant had an answer: it comes from the subject, that space and time are (in the old jargon) secondary qualities, not primary. And this is not all that hard a notion to accept, since that is what happens in our dreams (for space at least, though time is at least being radically altered). Hence, my theory is that space and time are not being transcended in the act of sense perception, rather they are being created (along with the other secondary qualities: color, taste, sound, etc.) As a bonus, this theory provides a nice interpretation of quantum physics: all the weirdness arises from trying to shoehorn the experimental results into a spatiotemporal framework, but if space and time are not fundamental, then things like the Aspect experiments or superposition of states are not weird.

I'll also mention that this theory does not deny external reality (if 'external' means 'not me' -- i.e., it shouldn't be interpreted spatially). There really are "things in themselves" (if 'things' is not interpreted as 'spatiotemporal objects'), and unlike Kant I think we can have knowledge of those things as they are in themselves, but expanding on that is for another day. But my overall point here is that this theory is consistent with all our scientific knowledge, and with how we get along in the world (e.g., driving cars). However, it does indicate that attempting to explain consciousness by exploring the spatiotemporal structure of the nervous system is circular, and hence doomed to fail. If that is so, then materialism fails as well.

But, assuming you are not convinced, all that I hope to accomplish here is to argue that idealism is nevertheless a viable hypothesis, and my original point remains: that it is fruitless to argue over the validity of religion unless we clarify to what extent our arguments are based on our prior metaphysical commitments.

Stephen Law said...

Some of us are muddling two entirely different arguments, with the result that some think they are challenging mine, when they’re actually challenging a straw man.

My argument epistemological, not ontological. Mine says, roughly, if reports of a certain kind of experience, seemingly of an external transcendent reality, would be quite likely anyway, given the power of suggestion plus the fact that those reporting them have engaged with dedication and over long periods in activities known to produce mind-altering effects even outside of a religious context, then we have good grounds for being skeptical about the claim that the reported experiences are indeed of an external transcendent reality. They MIGHT be – but there are good grounds for doubt.

(Indeed, I added this: that the experiences are just a result of said activities plus the power of suggestion, and not, in addition, some external transcendent reality, is overwhelmingly the better, because the simpler, explanation for what is reported. Note, however, this further claim could be discarded and the above still defended).

Note my conclusion is epistemological. The argument does not say that all there is to conscious experiences is neurological events. It does not say that the character of subjective experiences can be entirely explained naturalistically. The argument and its conclusion are compatible with the truth of materialism, substance dualism, property dualism, etc. etc.

Attacking materialism is thus irrelevant. So is attacking naturalism, reductionist accounts of mental states, eliminitivism about mental states (there are no such things). All completely beside the point.

Also note my argument does not conclude that there is no external transcendent reality, or God. It just says that we have good reason to be rather suspicious about said experiences, given that reports of such experiences would be likely anyway even if there was no such reality/God. Hence I am not obliged to “prove” there is no such reality/God (Sam).

It would be great if someone actually tried tackling my argument, instead of attacking straw men. It’s actually a very simple argument. A good one too, I think! I am not surprised the theists prefer to respond to a different argument!

Andrew Louis said...

Fair enough Stephen.

Just to make sure I understand you, you seem to be suggesting that meditative experiences outside of a “religious experience” (and perhaps attributed to nothing but discipline) are the same experience as those reported by say, a serious mystic, who reports being in touch with a transcendent reality.

So the suggestion is that we can be skeptical of the latter because (perhaps) a transcendent reality is not required to account for the experience, and perhaps is (for the lack of a better word) superfluous – just too many unnecessary words.

If this is somewhat following, I’d ask, “What evidence do we have that the psychological states of the two people are the same?” which of course gets me back to where I was evidently lead astray with my notions of psychology and neurological states.

scott roberts said...

Stephen,

The reports of Merrell-Wolff or Bernadette Roberts do not jibe at all with the reports of non-believers who meditate for a long time. That is, with these (what I call) first-class mystics, the entire epistemological (and ontological) basis of the non-believer is overturned.

Wolff, for instance, says that he became aware of a third mental process, which he calls 'introception', to be added to 'perception' and 'conception', which, of course, is impossible to describe in terms of percepts and concepts, but sounds like being in immediate contact with something like Platonic Forms. Rudolf Steiner has also claimed something like this.

In these cases, regardless of whether or not you accept them (you might if you are an idealist, you can't if you are a materialist), they are nothing like anything that can be explained as "quite likely anyway, given the power of suggestion plus the fact that those reporting them have engaged with dedication and over long periods in activities known to produce mind-altering effects even outside of a religious context".

It looks to me like you are restricting your notion of what counts as a mystical experience to that which fits into a mentality restricted to working with percepts and concepts. There is a reason that the Zen master tells his students to pay no attention to supernatural visions -- they are merely distractions, just more subject/object experience. The first-class mystic is one who has moved beyond that, which is to say has moved beyond the epistemological limits to which you (and I) are restricted. If you say that we must restrict our thoughts about the possibility of transcendental reality to that which fits within those epistemological limits, well, that's why I say you are a materialist. In other words, it is your claim that yours is "just" epistemological -- and what counts in that epistemology -- that tells me what your ontology is.

wombat said...

Are there any examples of people who claimed to experience it (transcendant reality) and then subsequently revised their interpretation of what they experienced? Could they vouch for being able to attain the same state again , minus the "transcendant" interpretation of course?

scott roberts said...

wombat,

Apparently Susan Blackmore went from believer (in psi, after an OOBE) to sceptic, but now to agnostic.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Stephen,

You say: ’Also note my argument does not conclude that there is no external transcendent reality, or God. It just says that we have good reason to be rather suspicious about said experiences, given that reports of such experiences would be likely anyway even if there was no such reality/God. Hence I am not obliged to “prove” there is no such reality/God (Sam).’

But God, transcendence, the religious experience, whatever one calls it, is ontological. The epistemological part is the individual’s interpretation of that experience. I agree that that part is effectively up for grabs, but it’s affected by one’s philosophical or religious viewpoint.

I think you make a good point when you say the experience would probably happen ‘even if there was no such reality/God’.

I can only talk for myself, but theism comes from looking inside oneself, where paradoxically you find something that ‘feels’ external to oneself. Even Augustine makes this point: : ‘...to reach the good, which is the real, one must “return into” oneself; for it is the spirit at the heart of man’s inmost self that links him to the ultimate reality.’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Regards, Paul.

Anonymous said...

Aren't we generally more sucessful when we favour naturalistic explanations over supernatural ones? Why should the experiences of the religious be any different? If, as a result of prolonged involvement with certain rituals and practices, one were to gradually experience deep feelings of worthlessness and discomfort, and interpreted them as a direct engagement with a trancendent reality of ultimate suffering, we'd be contacting a shrink rather than a priest. If we're not going to explain mental illness with demon possession anymore..... why finish drawing the line there?

The Celtic Chimp said...

Andrew,

I think the point Stephen is making is really very simple. If someone takes LSD (which we know has a certain type of effect on people) and subsequently has a transcendant experience, we are happy to put that down to the LSD. That doesn't mean it couldn't have been something else but it does follow. We people do other things like meditation or prayer (which we know has a certain type of effect on people) we who have no particular care or desire to promote the devine, will usually put that down to what they were doing. It doesn't mean it couldn't have been divine, it is just the case that the more direct cause and effect answer is sufficent. Occam's razor to an extent.

Andrew Louis said...

CC,
my question still remains. In order for what you’re saying to follow, it needs to be demonstrated that the theist and atheist experiences are the same.

Stephen said - and I tend to agree - that in the absence of religion, people would still have these experiences – in a way I’m granting the above. So then, it really comes down to the manner with which we interpret them and/or talk about them. What I think I’m hearing is that it is incorrect (or at least we should be suspicious) to interpret that experience with reference to a transcendent divine (where metaphysically the transcendent is viewed ontologically), because (afterall) there is no evidence of such a thing existing. I say this because Stephen will play the fairy card, which then brings the “transcendent dialogue” under the ontological umbrella and demands that “the thing” be proved in an objective way. But there hasn’t been any insistence (from Sam or Scott anyway, or even Karen A., I don’t think) that the thing is necessarily objective, or that what we’re talking about can necessarily be placed in a box such that we can all point and say, “there it is, the transcendent”.

But, I suppose, this is the mystery card.

Whateverman said...

Interesting review, Mr. Law.

About 2 weeks ago, I listened to an interview with Mrs. Armstrong on the NPR radio show Fresh Air. She talked about her new book, as well as the current state of religious discussion (as she perceived it). Being a (deist) skeptic, I found her ideas intriguing, and thought the book might be worth picking up.

I haven't read through this thread; apologies offered if this has already been mentioned. The interview is available online...

wombat said...

For an alternative slant on KA's book there is also a review by Eric MacDonald on www.butterfliesandwheels.com

anticant said...

That is a brilliant review.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Getting back to Stephen’s point about this being an epistemological argument. Epistemologically, God is a dead issue. There is no evidence of an external, objective, materialistic (or non-materialistic) God, end of story. God is an experience, which makes it ontological and is why the discussion has drifted in that direction. The interpretation of that experience is completely subjective, so there is no ‘objective truth’ as Anticant pointed out, and I have pointed out on previous posts. Andrew Louis makes a similar point in his last comment.

It’s effectively a non-issue, epistemologically. Which is why, in many parts of the world, this debate does not even exist.

I think Armstrong’s argument is flawed at its premise (I have read the Introduction to her book) where she makes the assertion that fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon and so is the idea of God as an objective entity. I find this inconsistent with her much earlier book, The History of God where she discusses the inherent, and historical, conflict between theologians who argued that God needed to be rationalised intellectually (therefore epistemologically) and those who argued that God could only be understood as a ‘mystic’ experience (therefore ontologically).

But whilst I can’t support her arguments, I support her idealism, which is the advocacy of tolerance in a secular, pluralist society. Going by all the comments I’ve read, both here and on other blogs, I think she has failed miserably. In an atmosphere where religion is increasingly becoming an issue of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, Armstrong has become one of ‘Them’ on both sides; the exact opposite to her intentions I expect. As far as fundamentalists are concerned, she is one of Them, and is far as atheists are concerned she is also one of Them. I’m one of those who refuses to join sides, in as much as I’m against fundamentalism, but I’m not against religion and I’m not against atheism. The point that is lost, I feel, is that you don’t have to be an atheist to be opposed to fundamentalism.

Regards, Paul.

wombat said...

Paul -

Epi- vs Onto.

Surely Stephen's point is that even though the experience may be real we are justified in being skeptical about knowledge claims based on a particular interpretation of it.

" ..you don’t have to be an atheist to be opposed to fundamentalism."

No but too many of the non-fundamentalists remain silent or worse give support to fundamentalism. When was the last time a noted Cardinal got in the papers for preaching a rousing sermon against Creationism? How may Sunday school teachers tell there classes that the story of Adam and Eve is just that?

Its all very well to say "God is an experience" but this is not how the vast majority, certainly in Abrahamic tradition speak or behave. The idea that it is possible to have a free standing experience without something external causing that experience does not occur to them and the writings, preachings and actions of the respective Churches, Mosques and Synagogues do little to enlighten them.

theObserver said...

The Celtic Chimps comments on LSD is especially appropriate given the experiments of Huxley and co with LSD style drugs for inducing mystical experiences during the 6o's. Eventually they figured out that 'oh wait! It was just the drugs after all. Darn'.

All this talk of vocabulary to describe woowoo is ,well, not very interesting to unsophisticated people like me. But what is interesting is the link the religious must make between the woowoo and their specific religious practices and morality. But I guess that is where 'faith' comes in and where the woowoo suddenly has the desire to inspire a human prophet in the middle east to record a detailed conversation of how we should live our lives and construct our societies.

Also, why are we talking about God here? On what bases do the religious claim this ineffable, indescribable woowoo is the God of the bible? Or a creator God at all? Could it not be another form of existence which renders human notions of creation and destruction, reward and punishment entirely obsolete? Does Armstrong explain the link?

anticant said...

Why does anyone need woowoo as an incentive to be moral? The evolution of human morality has little - if anything - to do with woowoo, whatever religionists claim.

scott roberts said...

I think the MacDonald review makes some good points. In particular, I agree that Armstrong is reading the history of religion through rose-colored glasses. Religion is and always was a huge mishmash of everything from the ridiculous to the sublime. Armstrong has her notion of what "good religion" is (as do all we religious folk), and it is certainly possible to find examples of it throughout the past, and across religions. But to say "that is what religion really is", is justly criticized. All one can say is "that is what religion occasionally is, and I think religion should be like that."

But this is also why we religious folk are impervious to atheist criticism. Either we are irrational fundamentalists, and so immediately dismiss any criticism as the work of the devil (or whatever), or we just don't care to debate, or, being rational, we have our reasons for accepting the religious ideas we espouse (our own notions of "good religion"). The atheist criticisms then divide into two categories: attacks on that which we regard as "bad religion", which we also reject, leaving attacks on what we accept. But these latter are things on which we have thought deeply, while the criticisms appear to us as coming from a superficial understanding of the issues involved. This is why, for instance, I reject Stephen's argument -- I see his understanding of mystical experience to be superficial.

This is why I hold that the only potentially fruitful argument has to occur on the level of ontology. By no means am I claiming that my specific religious notions are immune from criticism, but if I am working with a different epistemology -- arising from a different ontology -- than my critic, the argument is going nowhere unless and until I can be convinced that my ontology is at fault. And vice versa, I think the only way I could convince atheists of the errors of their ways is by showing their ontology to be lacking. In the meantime, arguments like Armstrong's and Stephen's are just preaching to their respective choirs.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Andrew,

But there hasn’t been any insistence (from Sam or Scott anyway, or even Karen A., I don’t think) that the thing is necessarily objective, or that what we’re talking about can necessarily be placed in a box such that we can all point and say, “there it is, the transcendent”.

True. I don't think anyone has offered anything tangible (figuratively speaking) which are claiming is the transcendant. I do think they are suggesting it is objective. Even that phrasing is perhaps a little evasive. They don't really mean something as nebulous and indistinct as 'the transcendant'. They mean the divine. As the observer points out, the religious go way beyond just an ineffable experience. They have very specific beliefs which they claim are justified by this experience. How do you get from an experiece of the transcendant to 'Jesus Christ was the son of God'. This is the sleight of hand that Stephen is refering to. When an atheists questions their specific beleifs they retreat to the unassailable safety of 'ineffable' 'unknowable'. When not defending the rationality of thier beliefs they are happy to talk about the divinity of a preacher in Jerusalem two millenia ago and even the nature of 'God'. The deist can avoid this problems by not holding any particular view on the attributes of this 'transcentant' entity. Few (I think Armstrong included) are willing to leave it there though. They are definately claiming that this is an objective truth, not a subjective experience. They are making a truth claim about the nature of the universe. They ususally go further and make claims about the nature of this 'unknowable' entity.

As to your point about needing to demonstrate that the theist and atheist experiences are the same it is surely the case that if the experience is 'ineffable', then it cannot be determined that the experiences are the same. Not only need it be demonstrated that the atheist and theist experience is that same but also the the theist A and theist B experiences are the same. For example, would you say that Sam's and Armstrong's 'God' are the same. How could we ever know except perhaps in their case that Sam is not just a deist, well not all of the time anyway :P

It seems to me that the specific nature that these experiences often have; the Christian gets a sense of Jesus for example while the Muslim senses Mohammed. These specifics speak strongly to the notion of suggestibility. Well either that or that there are multiple 'gods'. Again, suggestibility here is a completely satisfactory answer and one in keeping with the extent of the evidence.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Scott,

What do you say to the atheists who have immersed themselves in spirtuality. Sam Harris for example. Do you take the position that if someone doesn't come to the same conclusions as you that their understanding must be superficial.

If you are willing to accept that some atheists have had profound spiritual experiences but never-the-less reject the more mystical explanations of those experiences; how do you react when they make the same argument as Stephen?

You say you are not just trying to put your religious beliefs beyond criticism but then it seems like that is exactly what you are doing. You are essentially insisting that Stephens argument must mean he doesn't have a proper understanding. You are dismissing the possibility that he does understand and just comes to a different conclusion to you.

Your ontology point seems to be basically saying. If I am wrong I won't agree with my critic because I am basing my conclusions on a faulty premise. You then say that your faulty premise (your ontology) must first be shown to you to be at fault. So....

If we can just prove to you that God doesn't exist, then you might listen to us :P

In the interim, I presume that you will continue to view your epistemology as confirmation of your ontological assumption. Nice.

Seems pretty much untouchable to me.

Martin said...

Celtic Chimp is asking to see proof that Theist A and Theist B's experience of God is "the same". However "sameness" is not a quality which will be very useful in this context. It ranges from a bit similar to identical, but it is not an objective test. For instance, I could not demonstrate that my experience of a common thing like the colour red is "the same" as Celtic Chimp's. I might say pinks are part of "red", the Chimp might include deep orange. Our differences about "red" tell us nothing about whether "red" exists or not.

To solve the "does red exist" problem we can however theorise that colour is connected to the wavelength of light and make a prediction about what proportion of people will call a particular wavelength of light red.

Armstrong's definition of God seems to be outside objective measures, so we will always be unable to theorise and make predictions about the presence or properties of her God. However, this does not stop Theist A and Theist B from identifying some sort of experience as "God" and starting a conversation about it. Theists go on to make the claim that because there are lots of conversations about God, there must be something objective out there that is God. This fails as a piece of logic in the same way that if we all started seeing ghosts, it wouldn't mean that ghosts exist. We must insist there is something objective we can measure about ghosts, then theorise about when the measurement will be observed, before we can posit that they exist.

Stephen's argument is to say that Armstrong has taken God outside the realm of theorising, but there are still chinks in the armour. The essence of his argument is to say there is an alternative way to explain God-like experiences, and that this explanation is "more likely". He doesn't however explain how he arrived at this level of likelihood, just that we need to understand psychology to expect it. In fact, far more people seem to attribute these experiences to God, so his prediction fails. To me it sounds like an argument from the authority of psychology and thereby fails as a fallacy.

My own inclination is to believe that the psychology is probably right too, but I can well understand why a theist would be deeply sceptical. Theists are perfectly entitled to carry on their conversations about God, whether or not God can be shown to exist. Ghosthunters are entitled to go about their business too. Rationalists are entitled to point out that existence should be subject to objective criteria in order to be philosophically sound.

scott roberts said...

CC,

What do you say to the atheists who have immersed themselves in
spirtuality. Sam Harris for example.


I haven't read Harris. I just took a look at his web site, and judging by the blurb on his The End of Faith it seems his objection to religion is that it is dangerous. I agree with that, but that of course does not mean it is false. The only thing I saw (elsewhere on the site) about why he is not a theist is that there is no evidence for God's existence. So now we have to go down both the road of what counts as evidence (epistemology) and to the issue that, apophatically, even to say "God exists" is problematic. Now, I have given what I mean by God here. I'll be happy to respond to an objection to it if you provide one.


Do you take the position that if
someone doesn't come to the same conclusions as you that their
understanding must be superficial.


No. I will regard their understanding as superficial if there are considerations that I am aware of but which they show no indication of having taken into account.

If you are willing to accept that some atheists have had profound
spiritual experiences but never-the-less reject the more mystical
explanations of those experiences; how do you react when they make the
same argument as Stephen?


You'll need to be specific. What may strike the Zen student as "profound" may strike the Zen master as a distraction.

You say you are not just trying to put your religious beliefs beyond criticism but then it seems like that is exactly what you are doing. You are essentially insisting that Stephens argument must mean he doesn't have a proper understanding. You are dismissing the possibility that he does understand and just comes to a different conclusion to you.

I've given my specific objections (see my previous comments in re Merrell-Wolff). If Stephen wishes to rewrite his argument that takes this objection into account, I'm all eyes.

If we can just prove to you that God doesn't exist, then you might listen to us :P

Sure, but then I maintain that proof only exists in mathematics, so I'm not going to hold my breath.

In the interim, I presume that you will continue to view your
epistemology as confirmation of your ontological assumption. Nice.

Seems pretty much untouchable to me.


You seem to be accusing me of circularity, but I don't see it. My assumption is that God (as defined in the link above) is real. Various things follow from that. If one of those things can be shown to be false, I'll need to reexamine my assumption, but so far that hasn't happened. Is that any different from a materialist assuming materialism is true and various things following from that premise?

theObserver said...

@Scott - What religion do you follow?

As the Chimp pointed out, you can be an Atheist and a woo-woo loving airhead. There are a lot of 'new age' people prancing around these days.

theObserver said...

@Scott

"I've given my specific objections (see my previous comments in re Merrell-Wolff). If Stephen wishes to rewrite his argument that takes this objection into account, I'm all eyes."

Ahh yes. I forgot about the "first class mystics" whose experiences are beyond description. Please.

Maybe I should go into the woo-woo business. It seems I only need fantastical claims to distinguish myself. A fool and his money are soon parted.

Whateverman said...

Maybe I should go into the woo-woo business. It seems I only need fantastical claims to distinguish myself. A fool and his money are soon parted.

If the US political climate isn't a shining example of this, nothing is.

Do it - early retirement is calling...

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Wombat,

In response to your first point: I agree that Stephen’s scepticism of someone else’s interpretation of their experience is justified – e.g. most people are sceptical of ghost stories and UFO sightings. Having said that, someone’s experience can have meaning for them in a way that it wouldn’t have meaning for someone else, and neither would you expect it to. That’s how I would classify a religious experience, whether it includes a concept of God or not.

I expect that the differences in our perspective on religion, as a cultural influence, is, at least partly, due to our living in different parts of the world. I assume you live in the northern hemisphere, despite your antipodean moniker.

To give an example: In 2005, Australia had a federal election, and an independent politician, who had links with The Assembly of God church tried to do a deal with the major parties to get ID (Intelligent Design) on the school curriculum. In Australian politics, the minor parties (including independents) do deals with the major parties – it’s an important part of our democratic process, but I’m sidetracking.

The response was that mainstream theologians were the biggest critics. An example can be found here, in a science magazine. But also mainstream media included vociferous criticism from theologians. The issue had a quick death and hasn’t been resurrected since. So I believe that answers your second point.

I believe the vast majority of ‘believers’ are not fundamentalists but the fundamentalists are the ones who get the headlines. I think it’s a huge mistake, and even dangerous, to paint all religions and all religious followers with the same fundamentalist brush. It's like assuming that all Muslims are terrorists, or potential terrorists. When we start demonising religion we become as bad as the fundamentalists themselves.

Regards, Paul.

anticant said...

Does it really matter whether or not God exists? What matters, in the real world, is what "believers" and "faith people" do and support in God's name.

Even Scott agrees that religion is dangerous. I would go further than that and say it is socially toxic.

While Paul may think it is 'demonising' Islam to regard all Muslims as potential terrorists, the striking absence of vocal 'moderate' Muslims raising their voices in protest against terrorism indicates to me, on the analogy of the dog that didn't bark in the night, that they are at least passive supporters of violence committed in the name of Allah.

Surely these issues of religion's actual effects are far more important than abstract speculation about whether or not God exists.

scott roberts said...

theObserver,

What religion do you follow?

See my (now dormant) blog. It is better read from the earlier entries to the later.

Ahh yes. I forgot about the "first class mystics" whose experiences are beyond description. Please.

It is the case that one cannot describe mystical states in the way one can describe, say, one's travel experience, but one can attempt to relate what one learns from being in those states. This too is limited, and all too often the mystic does a poor job of it. Wolff does the best job of it that I know of. You're welcome.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I'm sorry Anticant, that you and I disagree over this.

Religion's 'actual effects' go both ways. If your total experience of religion is only one way, then that is a sad indictment, but it's not mine.

Branding all Muslims as fundamentalist is deeply troubling to me. Calling them 'passive supporters' is saying the same thing. I disagree so strongly with that opinion.

I know you've said before that all religion is politics but I don't agree with that either. As I've said before, we obviously live in different social environments.

If we demonise Islam then we are as bad as they who demonise us.

Regards, Paul.

wombat said...

CC -

"They are definately claiming that this is an objective truth, not a subjective experience."

I am not so sure that this is the case with KA. My objection to her stance is that she too often carefully uses ambiguous language to avoid saying this clearly.

Take "a symbol of indescribable transcendence...pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality”

(I admit to being on shaky ground here since I do not yet have a copy of the book, but it seems i keeping with some of the other stuff I have read of hers so I will chance it despite the lack of context.)

Most of us assume that this implies that the thing or property pointed to exists, but is this really the case? Surely it is possible to have pointers which point to nothing. Just because I have a box labeled "Beetle" doesn't mean it ever contained one.

I don't think KA is overtly making the claim about the nature of the universe but she is deliberately encouraging such claims to be made and the allowing them to go unchallenged. Yes there are the obligatory warnings about idolatry, a bit of apophatic language but the effect of this distracts rather than informs.

Misdirection to cover the sleight of hand.

wombat said...

Paul -

"The response was that mainstream theologians were the biggest critics."

Good for them. No chance of them sending some missionaries to the North is there?

Sadly outside the civilized South there would appear to be a vast majority of realist religious believers, far too many fundamentalists and few mainstream clergy who will speak out.

anticant said...

Paul,

There is no need to be “sorry” over disagreements. It would be a very dull – and unproductive – world if everyone thought alike.

Nor is it a question of who is “right” and who is “wrong”. What really matters is: what are the most likely facts on the balance of the evidence, and what does this presage for the future?

I have known, and been influenced by, many fine people of various religious faiths - not least the saintly Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom. I have also encountered some horribly destructive hate-filled religious believers driven by malicious self-righteousness.

If you don’t think that all religious interventions in society are political in effect and often in intention, what do you think they are?

I don’t hate anybody because of their religion, but I do find some religious beliefs abhorrent. In the case of Islam, the more one studies it the more it becomes apparent that its doctrines are diametrically opposed to our Western notions of democracy and open civil society. I am not saying that our ways and beliefs are indisputably superior; I am saying there is no room for compromise between them and a fanatical sect which preaches totalitarian theocracy.

This is not “demonisation” – just recognition of the unpalatable truth that you can’t square circles or blend oil and water. There is no pie in the sky, whatever you may prefer to think

I am currently reading an extremely interesting and thoughtful book on this subject which I commend to you – “The Suicide of Reason” by Lee Harris.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Anticant,

I'll take it on board.

Regards, Paul.

anticant said...

Mind you, I don't agree with everything the guy says - does one ever? But at least he brings a thoughtful historical perspective to bear.

Billy said...

“God”, says Armstrong, is “a symbol of indescribable transcendence”,

So, even if it did exist, how can she say what it's characteristics are/are not?

Andrew Louis said...

Anticant,

You said:
” Does it really matter whether or not God exists?”

Probably the most meaningful question in the thread….

-----

For what it’s worth:
Personally, I tend to see part of the problem is that religion essentially institutionalizes/dogmatizes the mystical (if you will), in much the same way Marriage institutionalizes love. One has to detach what the institution is and does from the path it’s trying to draw on.

Imagine if you will, raising a child from the time he is 6 with the sort of rhetoric which says, “you will love and marry this girl, and be with her for the rest of your life. You will not love another, any feelings you have for another woman is sinful and wrong…” etc. etc. etc.

Of course, at 6 years old (Sunday school age), this kid has no idea what you’re talking about. However, once he “comes of age” he’s going to naturally start having feelings and emotions for other girls/woman, even though, he’s slated, or already has, been wedded to his partner set by his parents.

So the question is, due to the life long impregnation of institutional thinking, will he be able to think about, distinguish and/or interpret what he’s feeling outside of his dogmatic language? There’s a strong chance that he’ll interpret “normal” feelings for other woman, and/or a strong feeling for one other woman as being bad, wrong, evil and sinful, even though these feelings are quite natural. Not only that, but there’s a strong chance that he’s missing out on the love of the woman of his dreams.

I suppose my point is simply that, if we can step outside what the institution is and does, we can see it not as some absolute (which I don’t think was ever the intention), but a path and/or a language to talk about and express the mystical. In this way you can see any religious practice, whether Christian, Buddhist, or Islam, as being a medium of cultivation. Its truth lies in it’s ability to do that, not in the so called questionable nature of the supposed objective truths regarding it – it’s a mythology if you will (not in the bad sense) a metaphorical language. Further, we’re so used to the majority of the faith interpreting religion, the religious experience, and God with respect to the institution and what it says.

anticant said...

Andrew,

Obviously, God exists in the minds of those who believe he/she/it does.

That is an entirely separate issue from the question of whether God exists as an objective independent entity outside the minds of believers.

The "lifelong impregnation of institutional thinking" which you refer to is what Lee Harris, in the book I mentioned earlier, calls the "visceral code" of a culture. He contrasts the Western Enlightenment tradition of individuals each acting on their supposedly rational assessment of what is in their own best interest with the tribal mindset which subordinates the individual's interest to that of the group - the mindset which prevailed in all pre-Enlightenment cultures and still does in contemporary non-Western societies - Islam, China and others.

His key thesis is that, while an open individualist society may be morally superior and more comfortable to live in, it isn't necessarily going to prevail in evolutionary terms against collectivist ideologies.

Matt Valler said...

I think the focus on religious experience is a red herring (though a valid question to pose to Karen Armstrong's thesis). The real argument that Armstrong advances, as I understand it, is the value of religion (and 'God') for meaning. For her, meaning is not ontological, nor epistemological. It is functional.

It is precisely the unlikely nature of religious claims that makes their meaning so valuable. If I say that I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead I am making an obviously implausible statement. Yet the act of declaring it is subversive: it stands in opposition to the laws of the world in which I live. The meaning of the statement is not confined to the question of historicity (i.e. did Jesus really rise from the dead? as if that were an ontological question anyway and not an ideological one). It is located in the experience of the person who declares it; emboldened by its stance against the inevitability of death I believe - just for a moment - that my circumstances may change; instead of falling to fatalism I am empowered by hope. That doesn't mean I think that somehow I am not going to die. It's that the meaning of the theological statement opened in my world a crack through which I could glimpse a different possibility.

I don't think that Karen Armstrong is making the case for God because she wants to win the ontological or epistemological arguments. I think she has identified a failure of imagination within Western society and credited the loss of 'God' as a root cause. If you can demonstrate your ability to imagine a different (better) world without the need for religion and religious language then you'd really prove her wrong. And I honestly think she'd be happy about it.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I agree with Andrew Louis and Anticant that: "Does it really matter whether or not God exists?" And "Obviously, God exists in the minds of those who believe he/she/it does."

I've made both of these points myself in previous discussions even though I call myself a theist.

Just over a month ago I read Don Cupitt's book, Above Us Only Sky, from which I take this quote:

"The only ideas, thoughts, convictions that stay with you and give you real support are ones you have formulated yourself and tested out in your own life… In effect, the only religion that can save you is one you have made up for yourself and tested out for yourself: in short, a heresy."

Cupitt also discusses at length the 'dangers', as he sees them of institutionalised religion:

"Our moral posture and practice must never be associated with a claim to be… an adherent of some particular ethnic or religious group, because all those who retreat into ‘identity’ have given up universal morality and have embraced some form of partisan fundamentalism – which means paranoia and hatred of humanity."

But I see a distinction between what Helen Philips calls 'Intrinsic' religion and 'Extrinsic' religion, where the former is tolerant of others' beliefs and the latter tends to be an ingroup/outgroup mentality. I guess this is where I disagree with Anticant, in making this distinction.

In regard to Matt Valler's comment, I think Armstrong would agree that the resurrection of Jesus is mythology. Armstrong, from what I've read, has always appreciated the role of mythology in religion.

Regards, Paul.

Andrew Louis said...

Paul,
sounds like Cupitt got his quote from the Buddha where he states:

"Believe nothing on the faith of traditions,even though they have been held in honor for many generations and in diverse places. Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it. Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past. Do not believe what you yourself have imagined, persuading yourself that a God inspires you. Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto."

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for that. I knew the Buddha had said something like that, but I'd never seen it quoted before.

Even better put than Cupitt, I would say.

I wrote a review of Cupitt's book here, though it's lengthy and only slightly applicable to this topic.

But I make the point that those words are the most salient point in the entire book for me.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Just curious Andrew.

Do you have a source for that quote?

Regards, Paul.

Andrew Louis said...

Paul,
it's a pretty popular quote - I think. I got it from some book sitting around here somewhere, and posted it on my blog some months ago.

I suppose you could ask the ever wise and great Google...

crabsallover said...

Karen Armstrong also makes a case for compassion and The Golden Rule.
http://hassers.blogspot.com/search/label/The%20Golden%20Rule

Bill said...

I apologise if this was said, but I missed it in perusing through all the comments.

Armstrong seems to define God as 'all that is (can't be?) unknown'.

Most Christians/Muslims/Jews (at least) that I have met would define God as an omniscient being that can love, listen, talk and interact with human beings and can perform great acts. This was certainly the God of my upbringing.

Here's the rub: If you accept Armstrong's definition, the we are all Theists, because we all accept that there are things that are unknown.

If you accept the definition of God of my upbringing, then Armstrong is an atheist. She argues cogently that that God does not exist/is not real.

Or have I missed something?

Peregrin said...

Hi, thanks for the post, only just seen it and have not studied the comments deeply, so apologies if this has already been said.

OK, look, really we all know that religion isn't going to go away. No matter how many atheist buses and bestsellers there are. And unless it changes it will continue to infect our institutions with bogeys like 'creation science'.

This book and all of Ms Armstrong's work is to try and mature these religious views. It counters crap like 'creation science'. If every pastor, priest and layperson thought like Ms Armstrong there would be no need for 'new atheists'. You should be buying her a drink for this book.

And sorry, you seem to miss what Ms Armstrong says so clearly in the quotation you provide. There is no point discussing religion and pointing to psychological equivalents. It needs to be practiced. Ms Armstrong makes NO metaphysical claims that many of your commentators go on to attack.

What she DOES say is that religion provides an extra element to the experiences you infer can be achieved by secular/psychological means, and that is compassion. The ritual group mind of a football game lacks compassion and is based on competition. This alone is why it is not religious.

And please be clear - you are only inferring that the various examples you give produce the same results as traditional depth religion, as you have no life-long practice of the later.

Thanks :)

DM said...

Thank you for a thorough and critical review of Armstrong's new book, The Case For God. Armstrong is certainly brilliant and eloquent, and there are many valuable insights within its pages. Indeed, she moves from ancient religious practices to medieval thinkers to postmodern theologies.

Yes, often in many various religions, ideologies, theologies, etc. there is a breakdown in logic and reason that leads us to silence, wonder, and awe, where we transcend our ego and reach an enlargement of persective and experience. And it is provacative that this is something that can be found in multiple world-religions. Does it say anything, though, different about the world out there, like something of an all-pervading consciousness? No, and I don't think Armstrong would say that. I think she concedes and tries to point out theologians who say it may be nothing more than our ability to make subjective or abstract thoughts and feelings objective. Thus, she explores in the book, music is a "natural theology" because our self-centered subjective emotions and thoughts are made tangible and concrete for others to experience and understand.

In many ways, I think she has some things in common with the new atheists. Harris advocates for a "scientific spirituality" which he says can help us find fullness and be a profound means of experiencing the world.

Postscript:
Ineffable transcendence and apophasis is something we can also experience in sleep. As one Berenstain Bears book I remember states, our brains put things in our experience together in new ways without our conscience effort while our eyes are closed. Thank goodness they're only dreams, though, and that I forget most of them.

Anonymous said...

“The truths and insights of religion thus lie beyond even the comprehension of its critics.”
It follows then, that either they are within Armstrong’s comprehension. Which contradicts a previous claim of incomprehensibility. Or else they are outside even Armstrong’s comprehension. In which case Armstrong knows not whereof Armstrong speaks.

“you are treating belief in God as if it were a hypothesis that might be rationally assessed!”
When in fact it may be more like a self-induced hypnosis, and thus all things to all those who encounter it.

“activities that can induce such altered states. Take meditation for example.”
Take medication, for another example.

(animals in zoos can also sometimes be seen responding to the stress of captivity by self-medicating in this way).
Talking of head banging. Allegedly, on record, there was a nun who stimulated a horn-like growth to extend from her forehead (unicorn style), after incessant butting of the wall as a penance.

Coming together in a large group to sing can also be a very powerful intoxicating experience
As too can hyperventilating. Which is in essence, singing without the words.

If you have ever entered a large cave by torchlight
Or walked though moonlit woods. Random shapes transform into dangerous creatures. As the mind seeks to protect its host from potential ambush.

their lucky pants have been lost.
Though oddly, not subjected to disquiet when secretly substituted for an identical pair?

The regime is certainly likely to produce a heady and intoxicating psychological brew.
Not unlike a child’s security blanket?