Wednesday, September 28, 2011

“BUT I JUST KNOW!”


(this is adapted from my book Believing Bullshit - compressed version of the chapter of the same title)

Bush’s gut

Notoriously, during George W. Bush’s presidency, Bush’s gut became the oracle of the State. Bush was distrustful of book learning and those with established expertise in a given area. When Bush made the decision to invade Iraq, and was subsequently confronted by a skeptical audience, Bush said that ultimately, he just knew in his gut that invading was the right thing to do. As writer Rich Procter noted prior to the invasion:

Now we're preparing to invade a country in the middle of the most volatile "powder-keg" region on earth. We're going to toss out our history of using military force only when provoked. We're going to launch a "pre-emptive" invasion that violates two hundred-plus years of American history and culture. We're on the verge of becoming a fundamentally different kind of nation - an aggressive, "go-it-alone" rogue state - based on Bush's gut…

The invasion went ahead. A few months later, Senator Joe Biden told Bush of his growing worries about the aftermath. In response, Bush again appealed to the reliability of his “instincts”, as Ron Suskind here reports:

''I was in the Oval Office a few months after we swept into Baghdad,'' [Biden] began, ''and I was telling the president of my many concerns'' - concerns about growing problems winning the peace, the explosive mix of Shiite and Sunni, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and problems securing the oil fields. Bush, Biden recalled, just looked at him, unflappably sure that the United States was on the right course and that all was well. '''Mr. President,' I finally said, 'How can you be so sure when you know you don't know the facts?''' Biden said that Bush stood up and put his hand on the senator's shoulder. ''My instincts,'' he said. ''My instincts.'' …The Delaware senator was, in fact, hearing what Bush's top deputies - from cabinet members like Paul O'Neill, Christine Todd Whitman and Colin Powell to generals fighting in Iraq - have been told for years when they requested explanations for many of the president's decisions, policies that often seemed to collide with accepted facts. The president would say that he relied on his ''gut'' or his ''instinct'' to guide the ship of state…

How did Bush suppose his gut was able to steer the ship of state? He supposed it was functioning as a sort of God-sensing faculty. Bush believed that by means of his gut he could sense what God wanted of him. But how reasonable was it for Bush to trust what his gut was telling him?

Evidentialism

Many would say “not very”. Philosopher W. K. Clifford, for example, famously insisted that

it is wrong, always and everywhere, to believe anything on insufficient evidence.

People who believe despite not possessing good evidence that their belief is true are being downright irresponsible, thought Clifford. This quotation is often used to condemn those who believe in such things as the Loch Ness monster, angels, fairies and even God. Such beliefs, it is suggested, are not well-supported by the evidence. So it is wrong for people to believe them. So it was wrong for Bush to believe what he did, in the absence of good evidence.

The idea that it is, at the very least, unwise to accept claims for which we possess little or no supporting evidence is certainly widespread. Richard Dawkins, for example, writes:

Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.


Let’s call the view that we ought not to accept any belief not well-supported by evidence evidentialism. Is evidentialism true?

Probably not. Evidentialism faces obvious difficulties. Perhaps the most glaring is this. Suppose I believe some claim A because I suppose I have supporting evidence B. But now ought I to believe that evidence B obtains? If evidentialism is true, it seems I ought to believe B obtains only if I posses, in turn, evidence for that – C, say. But then I should believe that C obtains only if there is, in turn, evidence for that, and so on ad infinitum. In short, evidentialism seems to entail that, before I adopt any belief, I must first acquire evidence to support an infinite number of beliefs – which, as a finite being, I can’t do. So Clifford’s injunction that I ought not to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence appears to have the disastrous consequence that I ought not to believe anything at all.

How might we escape this conclusion?

Before I address that question, let’s take a brief look at reliabilism, a theory of knowledge developed over the last half century or so would seem to entail that it is at least in principle possible (notice I don’t say likely) that some psychics, religious gurus and so on do indeed “just know” things by means of some sort of psychic or divinely-given sense. They do “just know” these things even if they don’t have any evidence to support what they believe. In which case, perhaps Bush might “just know” what God wants of him by means of his gut?

Reliabilism


Here is a simple reliabilist theory of knowledge. In order for person a to know that P,

(i) P must be true
(ii) a must believe that P
(iii) A’s belief that P must be brought about by the fact that P via a reliable mechanism

What’s meant by a “reliable mechanism”? A reliable mechanism is a mechanism that tends to produce true beliefs. My sense of sight is a fairly reliable belief-producing mechanism. It allows my beliefs fairly reliably to track how things are in my environment.

Suppose, for example, someone puts an orange on the table in front of me. Light bounces off the orange into me eyes, which in turn causes certain cells to fire in my retina, which causes a pattern of electrical impulses to pass down my optic nerves into my brain, eventually bringing it about that I believe there’s an orange before me. Remove the orange and that will in turn cause me, by means of the same mechanism, to believe the orange has gone.

The same goes for my other senses – they are fairly reliable belief-producing mechanisms. Blindfold me and put me in a crowded street and my ears, nose will, in response to the sound of car horns and the odour of hot dogs, cause me to believe I am in a crowded street. Move me to a fragrant garden filled with singing birds and those same senses will cause me to believe I am in such a garden. My senses of sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste cause me to hold beliefs that tend accurately to reflect how things actually are around me.

I don’t say our senses are one hundred percent reliable, of course. Sometimes we get things wrong. They are occasionally prone to illusion. But they are fairly reliable.

Let’s now apply our reliabilist definition of knowledge. Suppose someone puts an orange on the table in front of me. I look at the orange, and so come to believe there’s an orange there. Do I know there’s an orange on the table?

According to our reliabilist, I do. The simple reliabilist theory says that if (i) it’s true that there’s an orange there, (ii) I believe there’s an orange there, and (iii) my belief is produced via a reliable mechanism, e.g. sight, by the presence of an orange there, then I know there’s an orange there.

Now here is an interesting conseuqnece of this theory – a consequence very relevant to our discussion of psychic powers and George Bush’s gut. Notice, that, according to reliablism, in order to know there’s an orange on the table, I need not infer there’s an orange there. I need not arrive at my belief on the basis of good grounds or evidence. No evidence is required. All that’s required is that I hold the belief and that it be produced in the right sort of way – by a reliable mechanism.

Reliabilism and psychic powers


Many contemporary philosophers accept some form of reliabilism (though they have developed it in various ways). You can now see why reliabilism might also appeal to, say, a psychic who believes she “just knows” things about the dead.

Suppose a self-styled psychic – call her Mary – finds herself believing that her dead Aunt Sarah is currently in the room with her. Also suppose, for the sake of argument, that Mary really does have some sort of reliable psychic sense, that dead Aunt Sarah really is in the room with Mary, and that Mary’s psychic sense is what is causing Mary to believe Aunt Sarah is present. Then, says our reliabilist theory, Mary knows that Aunt Sarah is in the room with her.

Mary doesn’t infer that Aunt Sarah is present on the basis of evidence. Mary just finds herself stuck with that belief that Aunt Sarah is present, caused as it is by her reliable psychic sense. Yet, says our reliabilist, despite the fact that Mary doesn’t possess any evidence that Aunt Sarah is present, Mary knows Aunt Sarah is there. In fact, were Mary to claim that she “just knows” that Mary is in the room with her right now, she’d be right.

Of course, that they do “just know” such things despite not possessing good supporting evidence is a claim psychics make on a daily basis. So, while few psychics heard of reliabilism, reliabilism nevertheless opens up at least the possibility that these psychics are correct – they do know, despite not possessing any evidence.

“But hang on” you may object. “Even if reliabilism is correct and Mary does know her dead Aunt is in the room with her, that is not something she ought to believe. The fact is, Mary is being downright irresponsible in just accepting at face value this belief that happens to have popped into her head. Clifford is still correct – she shouldn’t believe it. It’s still unwise for her to believe it.”

In her own defence, Mary might now appeal to a further principle. Surely, Mary may insist, if something seems very clearly and obviously to be the case, then, other things being equal, it’s reasonable to believe it’s true. It’s reasonable to take appearance at face value. For example, if it seems clear and obvious to me that there’s on orange on the table before me, then surely it’s reasonable for me to believe there’s an orange there.

This principle does seem intuitively plausible. And it entails that, if it seems just clearly and obviously true to Mary that her dead Aunt is in the room with her, then, other things being equal, it is reasonable for Mary to hold that belief. Whether or not she can provide any publicly available evidence.

Reliabilism and religious experience


Let’s now return to Bush’s gut. Bush believes he can directly know, by means of his gut, what God wants him to do.

Many people believe that they “just know” directly, rather than on the basis of evidence, that God exists and that, say, the Bible is true. Ask them why they believe, and they may give reasons and justifications of one sort or another. But typically, even if such grounds are provided, not much weight is placed on them. Most Theists will say that they don’t believe on the basis of evidence. Rather, they “just know” God exists. They believe they experience God directly, perhaps in something like the way I just directly experience that orange on the table in front of me. To them, it seems perfectly clear and obvious that God exists.

Reliabilism seems to open up the possibility that some people might, indeed, “just know” that God exists. Suppose God has provided us with a sort of sensus divinitatis – a reliable, God-sensing faculty (in Bush’s case, that would be his gut). On the reliabilist view, it seems that a sensus diviniatis could provide such knowledge.

Moreover, a religious person might add, just as, if it seems clearly and obviously true to me that there’s an orange on the table, then it is reasonable for me to suppose there’s an orange there, so if it seems clearly and obviously true to someone that God exists, then it’s reasonable for them to believe God exists. There’s certainly nothing wrong, or irresponsible, about them taking their experience at face value.

This view about religious experience has been developed by several contemporary Christian philosophers, chief among whom is Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga’s version is detailed, but the gist is essentially this, that something like reliabilism is essentially correct, that God has indeed given everyone of us a God-sensing faculty or sensus divinitatis, and that consequently, some of us can know, directly and without evidence, that God exists. Indeed, that God exists is an entirely reasonable thing for such people to believe if that’s very much how things clearly and obviously seem to them even after careful reflection.

Plantinga adds that, if there is a God, he probably would want us to know of his existence directly by means of such a reliable God-sensing faculty. So, if there is a God, then some of us probably do know by such means that God exists.

You may be wondering: “But if we all have a sensus divinitatis, as Plantinga supposes, why don’t we all enjoy such God experiences?” Because, Plantinga explains, in many cases our sensus divinitatis has been damaged by sin:

Were it not for sin and its effects, God’s presence and glory would be as obvious and uncontroversial to us all as the presence of other minds, physical objects and the past. Like any cognitive process, however, the sensus divinitatis can malfunction; as a result of sin, it has been damaged.

Assessing psychic and religious claims to “just know”


We have seen how the reliabilist theory of knowledge seems to open up the possibility that some people might “just know” that their dead relative is in the room with them, or “just know” that God exists. We have also seen that evidentialism has been challenged, and that, according to Plantinga and others, it can be entirely reasonable for people to take their religious experiences at face value. Let’s now begin to assess these claims.

In fact, I find reliabilism plausible. I suspect that some version of reliabilism may well be correct. Let me also be clear that I do not rule out in principle the possibility that some people might be equipped with reliable psychic powers, or a sensus divinitatis, or whatever.

I’ll also concede that evidentialism is probably false, and that, generally speaking, it is indeed reasonable for us to take appearances at face value. If it seems just clearly and obviously the case that there’s an orange on the table in front of me, well then, other things being equal, it’s reasonable for me to believe there’s an orange on the table in front of me.

However, I remain entirely unconvinced that anyone who claims to “just know” that the dead walk among us, or that God exists, knows any such thing. Not only do I think the rest of us have good grounds for doubting their experience, I don’t believe it’s reasonable for them to take their own experience at face value either. I’ll explain why by means of what I call the case of the mad, fruit-fixated brain scientist.

The case of the mad, fruit-fixated brain scientist


Suppose Jane is shown what appears, quite clearly and obviously, to be an orange on the table in front of her. Surely then, it is, other things being equal, reasonable for Jane to believe there’s an orange there.

But now suppose the orange is presented to Jane in a rather unusual situation. Jane is one of several visitors to the laboratory of a mad brain scientist with a weird fruit fixation. She, like the other visitors, is wearing an electronic helmet that can influence what happens in her brain. From his central computer terminal, the mad brain scientist can, by means of these helmets, control what people are experiencing. He can create vivid and convincing hallucinations.

The scientist demonstrates by causing one of the visitors to hallucinate an apple. There’s much hilarity as the victim tries to grab for the fruit that’s not there. The visitors are then invited to wander round the lab where, the scientist tells them, they may experience several other virtual fruit. Jane then comes across what appears to be an orange on a table. Now, as a matter of fact, it is a real orange – one that fell out of someone’s packed lunch bag. Jane’s faculty of sight is functioning normally and reliably. This is no hallucination.

Now ask yourself two questions: (i) does Jane know there’s an orange on the table? And (ii) is it reasonable for Jane to suppose there’s an orange on the table?

Intuitively, it seems Jane doesn’t know there’s an orange present. After all, for all Jane knows, it could be one of the many hallucinatory fruit she knows about. But what would a reliabilist say? Well, sight is generally a reliable belief producing mechanism, and sight is what’s producing her belief. So some reliabilists may say that, yes, Jane does know. On the other hand, very many reliabilists say that, while in a standard environment, sight is reliable, it isn’t reliable in other kinds of environment, e.g. the kind of environment in which we will often as not be deceived by visual hallucinations. But then it follows that, because she is in just such an environment, Jane doesn’t know.

Now let’s turn to question (ii), which is the pivotal question: is it reasonable for Jane to believe there’s an orange before her?

Surely not. Given Jane knows that she is in an environment (the mad brain scientist’s laboratory) in which people regularly have compelling fruit hallucinations (indistinguishable from real fruit experiences), Jane should remain rather skeptical about her own fruit experience. For all she can tell, she’s probably having a mad-scientist-induced fruit hallucination.

I draw two morals for religious experience:

First of all, even if reliabilism is true, and even if some of us do have God-experiences produced by a sensus divinitatis, it remains debatable whether such people know that God exists. If human beings are highly prone to delusional religious experiences that they nevertheless find entirely convincing, then, even if, as a matter of fact, I happen to be having a wholly accurate religious experience revealing that, say, the Judeo-Christian God exists, it’s by no means clear I can be said to know the Judeo-Christian God exists, any more than Jane, coming upon a real orange in the brain scientist’s lab, can be said to know that there’s an orange on the table in front of her.

Second, and more importantly, even if it’s true, because of my religious experience, that I do know that the Judeo-Christian God exists, surely it still isn’t reasonable for me to take my experience at face value. For I find myself in a situation much like Jane finds herself in the brain scientist’s lab. Even though it looks to Jane clearly and obviously to be true that there’s an orange on the table in front of her, Jane should, surely, remain pretty skeptical about whether there’s actually an orange there, given that, for all she knows, she might very easily be having one of the many delusional fruit experiences currently being generated in the lab. Jane would be foolish to take appearance at face value. Similarly, if I have good evidence that many religious experiences are delusional – even the most compelling examples – then surely I should be equally skeptical about my own religious experiences, no matter how compelling those experiences might be. I would be foolish to take my experiences at face value.

A similar moral might be drawn about psychic experiences. If most – including even the most compelling examples – are delusional, then it’s debatable whether the psychic can be said to know. However, even if the psychic can be said to know, if they’re aware that many such experiences are delusional, then it surely isn’t reasonable for them to take their experience at face value.

16 comments:

Jacob Wahler said...

Thanks for sharing this portion of your book Stephen, appreciate the popular level exposition of these epistemological topics. Your work on reliabilism seems to focus a lot on explanatory model comparison and the role of defeaters. Do you feel as though defeaters (natural explanatory models explaining supernatural thinking) are sufficient enough for belief abandonment? Most true believers that I introduce natural explanations to are indifferent to or probabilistically demeaning about them. Said another way, natural explanations may be defeaters to perfect reasoners, but are rarely effective for less than perfect reasoners. Would you agree, do you concede this somewhere in the book?

Monte said...

Similarly, if I have good evidence that many religious experiences are delusional – even the most compelling examples – then surely I should be equally skeptical about my own religious experiences, no matter how compelling those experiences might be. I would be foolish to take my experiences at face value.

From what Ive understood you seem to be saying:

If S knows that many p-experiences are delusional, then x is unjustified in believing that any p-examples are veridical

If this is true then it follows that we cannot know that any of our experiences are true. Eg, I cannot know that there are trees, or there are dogs. This is because I know that many non-religious experience (of trees and dogs) are delusional, so does it follow from that that I must doubt all my non-religious experience? It doesnt, so its not the case that if many p-experiences are known to be delusional, then all p-experiences are to be doubted.

Anonymous said...

Your report of Plantinga's argument is obviously abridged, so I'm probably missing something, but it seems quite implausible.

Does Plantinga tell us how he knows that it's all those Muslims, Hindus, animists and atheists whose senses are damaged by sin, rather than Christians?

And wouldn't God,in his compassion and omniscience, use a more reliable, less easily damaged form of communication to help sinners?

Whichever god you believe in, the evidence from the sensus divinitatis is that it tends to produce untrue beliefs, and is unable in itself to distinguish between a true and a false belief.

Kiwi Dave

Eamon (Paraconsistent) said...

Stephen,

Re: 'No evidence is required. All that’s required is that I hold the belief and that it be produced in the right sort of way – by a reliable mechanism.'

Per reliabilism S is justified in believing p just in case p results from a reliable belief producing mechanism. However, when S assesses whether p is justified- that is, whether p results from a reliable belief producing mechanism-, S needs evidence as to the reliability of the belief producing mechanism.

E.g., if I assess whether visual perception under normal lighting conditions leads, on balance, to more true beliefs than false beliefs, I require evidence as to the frequency with which beliefs formed via visual perception under normal lighting conditions are true and false.

In a nutshell, the reliability of the belief producing mechanism confers justification upon beliefs only insofar as there is evidence for the reliability of the mechanism.

Re: 'Evidentialism'

Contra your (understandably) rough and ready presentation I am not convinced evidentialism is committed to foundationalism- whether of a traditional variety or a more updated version.

I understand Plantinga argues that evidentialism is so committed, but he is simply wrong. Besides, I am aware of much work which defends evidentialism from a coherentist perspective. If you are inclined, review Earl Conee's paper "The Basic Nature of Epistemic Justification" in 'Evidentialism: Essays in Epistemology', wherein Conee argues for a synthesis of foundationalism and coherentism along evidentialist grounds.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Stephen,

I appreciate you giving us excerpts from your book for food-for-thought, which is what I believe philosophy is all about.

In regard to your comments and quotes from Bush, I think there is always a problem when people in important positions never suffer from doubt. I know that politicians and their media handlers believe that showing doubt is political suicide and that's part of the problem. We expect our leaders to be so decisive that contemplating doubt is considered a weakness. But contemplating doubt is really contemplating alternatives. His dismissal of Biden's concerns is an example of 'groupthink' that has plagued many American administrations, especially when they go on a war footing.

First of all, even if reliabilism is true, and even if some of us do have God-experiences produced by a sensus divinitatis, it remains debatable whether such people know that God exists.

I think this is a most important point. God is such a subjective experience and so random that the idea of God being an external manifestation is difficult to maintain. But I can understand that the experience has meaning for the person who has it.

Your thought experiment about Jane is identical to what happens in dreams. It's only when we awake that we realise it's an illusion. It's not surprising that many cultures have believed dreams to be a connection to the spiritual world.

Regards, Paul.

Anonymous said...

Since when are 'psychic powers' considered as empirically reliable as sight, sound, taste, touch and scent?

Edward Ockham said...

Does 'beliefs produced by reliable mechanism' include beliefs about the mechanisms themselves? E.g. I have beliefs about the eye (it has an iris and a lens and a retina, and there is an optic nerve attached to the retina, and there are certain bits of the brain which seem to process signals from the optic nerve etc?

These beliefs about the reliable mechanism of vision are themselves the result of the same reliable mechanism (looking at other people's eyes, e.g.).

An earlier post of mine on supernatural powers may be relevant here.

@blamer said...

"many non-religious experience (of trees and dogs) are delusional" (@Monte)

You need to ask yourself how many. Are most people seeing "trees and dogs" mostly mistaken about what they are seeing?

Then for the contrast, are most people sensing "God and Jesus" mostly mistaken about what they are sensing?

Steven Carr said...

Why are religious experiences to be considered valid, but dreams are not?

Especially as the Christian Book holds that angels can appear in dreams and give real messages.

And why does the Christian god seem incapable of learning English?

Request of somebody who claims to experience Jesus personally that he ask Jesus when his birthday was, and you will get no answer.

Can't people with religious experiences ever experience an All-mighty Being who has learned English and can remember what day he was born on?

Gatogreensleeves said...

Thanks, this was fun, but it seems that 'folk theists' would intuit reliabilism in the context of the orange differently then in the context of a god, because they would import the parameter of god's desire to communicate as something that would somehow bolster the connection. God *wants* to be known, the orange doesn't; somehow that gives him the edge.

Ron Murphy said...

For me this highlights some of the limitations of philosophy, and in this case epistemology.

The purpose of claiming to know some fact to be the case seems to me to be based on the desire to know that it is in fact the case, to know it is true, for the purpose of relying on that fact. But one of the conditions of Reliabilism (and JTB) is that the fact be true in the first place [(i) P must be true].

But this is entirely circular: to be sure we know a fact to be true, we need to know it to be true in the first place.

If we don't know the fact to be true, then we don't have reliable knowledge (or more specifically we don't know whether we know we have it). If we know the fact to be true, then we know it to be true, and the other conditions are superfluous - but then how do we know that we know the fact to be true?

On top of that the third requirement [(iii) A’s belief that P must be brought about by the fact that P via a reliable mechanism] requires that we also know, already, that the mechanism is reliable.

A far better description of what knowledge is about is simply our belief in a fact, and our trust in the background to establishing the fact, through explicit direct evidence and the methods of science - which rely on many methods, including repeatability, to build up a consistent result, and, eventually, trust.

Ron Murphy said...

For me this highlights some of the limitations of philosophy, and in this case epistemology.

The purpose of claiming to know some fact to be the case seems to me to be based on the desire to know that it is in fact the case, to know it is true, for the purpose of relying on that fact. But one of the conditions of Reliabilism (and JTB) is that the fact be true in the first place [(i) P must be true].

But this is entirely circular: to be sure we know a fact to be true, we need to know it to be true in the first place.

If we don't know the fact to be true, then we don't have reliable knowledge (or we don't know whether we know we have it). If we know the fact to be true, then we know it to be true, and the other conditions are superfluous - but then how do we know that we know the fact to be true?

On top of that the third requirement [(iii) A’s belief that P must be brought about by the fact that P via a reliable mechanism] requires that we also know, already, that the mechanism is reliable.

A far better description of what knowledge is about is simply our belief in a fact, and our trust in the background to establishing the fact, through explicit direct evidence and the methods of science - which rely on many methods, including repeatability, to build up a consistent result, and, eventually, trust.

Bush's reliance on his gut is poor judgement not because of some philosophical notion about Reliabilism. That Bush rejects the need to call on evidence is only part of his problem; the positive evidence that gut feelings are unreliable is the other part. Even though we don't know for certain that Bush's gut isn't reliable (maybe he has a miraculously reliable gut), we know enough about guts in general, inductively, not to trust it.

Anonymous said...

After reading that I can see why Stephen Hawking thinks Philosophy is "dead".

Anonymous said...

Stephen Hawking thinks philosophy is dead because Stephen Hawking is an ignoramus

Paul Cornelius said...

Mr. Law:

There are some points here that I find confusing. I found them to be confusing when I read the book, and I'm afraid that reading this excerpt has not helped me. I wonder if you could address them for my benefit (maybe others find them confusing as well).

In the parable of Mary, you assume “for the sake of argument that Mary really does have some sort of reliable psychic sense.” Then you say that she is “downright irresponsible” to believe what this sense tells her. I can't figure out how both statements can be correct. You've defined a “reliable” mechanism as one which tends to produce true beliefs, and asserted that Mary's psychic sense is indeed such a mechanism. Then why would she be irresponsible to believe it? If it's really a reliable mechanism, and tended to produce true beliefs, wouldn't it actually be irresponsible to dis-believe it?

At the end of the parable about Jane, you say this: “if I have good evidence that many religious experiences are delusional – even the most compelling examples – then surely I should be … skeptical about my own religious experiences, no matter how compelling those experiences might be. I would be foolish to take my experiences at face value.” There are a couple of words here that I'm hung up on. You say that “many” (as opposed to “all”) religious experiences are delusional. This leaves open the possibility that some religious experiences are true, which would imply the existence of God. If that remains a possibility, then I don't see why at least some of the “most compelling” religious experiences should not be taken at face value. It seems to me there's a big difference between “many” and “all” in this case; in order for even one person to have even one “true” religious experience, a divinity would have to exist.

The other word that bothers me is the first one, “if.” There's a hint here that maybe you have a lot of “good evidence” that religious experiences are delusional. This would be a decisive point, or so it seems to me. If it can be convincingly demonstrated that religious experiences are delusional, that would end the discussion right there. We can eliminate religion by simply locking up anyone who suffers from such delusions, and then they won't contaminate the clear thinking of the rest of us. The Inquisition in reverse! But if that can't be convincingly proven, then I don't see that your argument provides a compelling reason why religious experiences should be singled out for rejection.

For a while I thought you might be making the point that we are all living in some sort of mad brain scientist's laboratory, where all human thought tends to be somewhat delusional. But of course that would make it impossible for humans to reason competently about anything. You warned us about that trick in chapter 3, Going Nuclear. And I don't see any good reason why delusions would affect us only when we are thinking about certain subjects, such as religion, psychic powers, the afterlife, economics or the Dallas Cowboys. Although in the last two cases it does seem to be somewhat true.

Can you shed some light on this for me?

William T said...

Something you don't seem to have addressed is that the reason we rely on the evidence of our natural senses is that the corroborate each other - the orange that we see also reliably evinces taste, touch, smell sensations. The same for other physical sensations, and almost always for any scientific measurement. Not so for the proposed psychic or religious sense. They are not supported by evidence from other senses, or indeed any kind of measurement that can be made with physical properties. So there is no way in which they can be called "reliable".