In Defence of Religious Belief

I was lying in bed last night when I heard a strange hissing and growling outside my bedroom door. I got to imagining that maybe I was about to be attacked by a monster (it turned out to be the fridge), which resulted in the following train of thought: hallucinations –> delusions –> psychotherapy –> the Brent Norton character in Stephen King’s novella “The Mist” –> a justification for religious belief that’s sort of a combination of Pascal’s Wager and the argument from religious experience. It goes like this:

You’ve been experiencing what you take to be hallucinations. You’re being followed around by a monster with big teeth. You’ve seen a psychiatrist who tells you that you’re suffering from a mental illness. You believe her. You know that monsters with big teeth don’t exist in the real world (notwithstanding crocodiles). You’re a logical sort of person. If you weren’t too classy, you’d even consider becoming a New Atheist. But the experiences remain absolutely real to you. They have a veridical quality.

You carry on with your life on the (rationally justified) assumption that these experiences are not real. You pretty much just ignore the monster – think John Forbes Nash after he realises he’s hallucinating – but then things start to change. The monster becomes more aggressive. It pinches the remote control when you’re trying to watch 90210, that kind of thing.

By this point you’re getting a little more worried: okay, it’s a hallucination, but what happens if you’re attacked by it? You know it’s not real, but … just suppose for a minute it is real? There are no monsters, obviously, but they’re not ruled out as a matter of logic, are they now?

And then it happens. It’s late at night. You’re alone in your bathroom, and the monster comes crashing in through the window – at least this is what you experience – and it’s on you. It doesn’t attack, but it’s right in your face, and you can smell rotting flesh on its breath. You close your eyes hoping it’ll just disappear, but you can hear its breathing, sense its malevolence, and in your head there’s this insistent thought:

What if it’s real?

At this point, given how high the stakes are, isn’t it reasonable to believe that the monster is real? Imagine yourself in that situation. What would you say to somebody who told you it was unreasonable or irrational to take evasive action? You wouldn’t be impressed, I suspect. Moreover, it’s not simply that you wouldn’t be impressed at the time – which is not particularly interesting, since you’re in a freaked out state – you wouldn’t be impressed afterwards either, you wouldn’t be impressed on calm reflection (with the claim that you were unreasonable to believe then).

Clearly belief in the monster isn’t epistemically warranted: the perilousness of a situation is not part of that story (though this is not to accept that the belief is entirely without epistemic warrant – the fact that the experience has a verdical quality surely counts for something). But the belief is warranted in a certain kind of rationally defensible way. You’re not making a cognitive mistake if you believe: given how high the stakes are, given the fact that the experience seems to have a veridical quality, it’s reasonable for you to believe it.

I’m aware that there are objections here, of course: for example, that belief wouldn’t be reasonable, but behaving as though one believes would be (that objection is not going to work, by the way), but I don’t think they’re decisive. So the question is what’s this got to do with religious belief?

Well, it is, in a way, analogous. Religious believers (some of them) claim both: (a) that their experience of the divine seems to be veridical; and (b) that belief in the truth of the experience can be a matter of life or death importance  – the stakes can be incredibly high. This second point bears further elucidation: it is not simply the Pascal Wager thing that one has to fear for one’s immortal soul (if that’s what Pascal was on about – I haven’t troubled myself to read him). It’s that right now, in the present, belief in the truth of the experience can be a matter of life or death importance. So think here, for example, about the mother who has lost a child, and yearns to be reunited with her in the afterlife. Or the soldier in the First World War struggling against the temptation to desert in the knowledge that he has to go over the trenches in the morning. Or simply the sceptical believer who in experiencing what seems to be the divine is profoundly unnerved by the idea that if the experience is true then it’s possible he’ll lose everything if he does not accept its truth.

So the argument is that if an experience seems to have a veridical quality, and if belief in its truth is a matter of pressing and utmost personal significance, then it is reasonable to believe in its truth. If this is right, it follows that religious belief is at least sometimes perfectly reasonable.

A few things to note here:

1. Just to avoid the obvious – but incorrect – objection: I am talking about experiences that genuinely seem veridical. I’m not going to be impressed if you tell me that you’ve experienced fairies, and that the truth of the experience of fairies is of the utmost importance in your life, and therefore it’s reasonable for you to believe in fairies – because you haven’t experienced fairies.

2. If your objection is that religious people don’t actually experiences what they take to be the divine in a way that seems to be veridical, then obviously, if that’s true, the argument doesn’t work. But I see no reason to assume it is true.

3. I’m aware that one should always be sceptical about accepting the truth of personal experience: that’s why I wove scepticism into the monster story.

4.  I’m partly just messing around with an argument here – because it’s fun. But if you think this is easy to dismiss, then I think you’re wrong. Or at least, I think you’re wrong if you think that it isn’t possible to rescue a version of this that will give me most of what I want from it. Of course, it’s most likely that it’ll just be ignored completely! :)

129 Comments.

  1. Adam El-Naggar

    I’m not sure I understand why the first objection you raise is incorrect. I’m sure people who have hallucinations of fairies think they seem very veridical, thats why they are a problem, because they seem so real. I see no reason to accept your monster analogy but not accept a similar argument for rational belief in fairies. Does the fact the its ‘reasonable’ to replace ‘God’ with a monster/fairy in this argument not imply something about the rationality of religous belief?

  2. Adam

    I’m sure people who have hallucinations of fairies think they seem very veridical

    Well it’s not an objection if people actually have hallucinations of fairies, and if the hallucinations are of such quality so that belief in the truth of the experience is of both pressing and utmost importance. In that situation, it is analogous to the monster situation, and belief is reasonable.

    The point I’m making is that if one accepts the validity of this argument it doesn’t mean that one has to grant that anybody who claims to believe in fairies is justified in believing in fairies, because most people who believe in fairies aren’t actually having a seemingly veridical experience of fairies. (However, if it turns out that they are then I have no problem biting the bullet.)

  3. Let’s say I’m walking through the desert and I see a burning bush (maybe someone left a cigarette there) and a voice from the burning bush calls out my name and tells me that he or she (the voice) is named Yahweh and that I have a mission to free the slaves in Egypt. Yes, even though I’ve been thoroughly indoctrinated by new atheists to never believe voices from burning bushes, I certainly would have no good reason not to believe what the voice tells me. Why not believe the voice? Besides, it flatters my ego to imagine that I’ve been singled out to free the slaves in Egypt.

  4. Ah well, there are lots of reasons not to believe the voice. The question is whether they are trumped by a compelling reason – even if that reason is not a matter of epistemic warrant – to believe the voice (given that the experience is veridical).

    If you were alone and lost walking through a desert, and you had to make a decision, to go north or to go south, and then you saw a burning bush, and you had a “vision” saying go north, I’d say it would be absolutely reasonable to believe it to be true (although not necessarily epistemically warranted). I’m sure this sort of thing has occurred (you know, if people are delirious through lack of water and whatnot).

  5. Somehow, the Psychological study of deja vu would seem very relevant (in the sense that Science becomes the wedge between logic and emotional perception). I’ve had many deja vu experiences, and I’m keenly aware of the difficulty in bringing those experiences under an empirical light. There was even one time when I could swear that I had dreamed an event before it happened. Unfortunately, I am not in the habit of writing down my dreams, so I could not compare the dream to the actual experience with regard to what would be considered a derived Barnum statement from the dream.

    Along with the modern study of the deja vu experience, I have to add that, for the sake of survival, the perceptions that trigger the fight or flight response, necessarily, tend to err on the side of caution. That is, it’s better to jump and run at the slightest bump in the night and analyze later then it is to hesitate and be eaten.

    And, since I prefer that religion be a realm of finding the deeper meaning and value of life, I prefer not to have it so strongly influenced by what goes bump in the night, though it can certainly be about how we get over what goes bump in the night. And, gosh darn it, that Pascal’s wager always kinda’ creeped me out–and I know I’m not the only one.

  6. The point about fight or flight is interesting. If I were going to criticise my own argument, I’d start by arguing that it is something very specific in the monster scenario that seems to make belief reasonable: and that is that one’s life is under direct threat. So it’s the fight or flight thing. There’s a compulsion there that makes belief almost inevitable. (Though of course it’s possible to have an argument about what it is precisely we believe in that situation.) And then the argument would be that this is absent in the case of the sorts of religious experiences I’m talking about.

    But the counter-argument is that this is to misunderstand just how compelling some people find the need to believe religious experience. There’s plenty of testimony out there – if you believe it – that there are moments where it seems literally to be a matter of life and death. Check out, for example, the story of Neal Morse, one time lead singer of the band Spock’s Beard (IIRC he had that sort of ‘if I don’t go with this I’m dead’ experience).

  7. I suppose we should consider the relationship that a “monster” would have to a hell fire and brimstone God versus a God of spiritual enrichment. And, I think both come into play when confronting mortality, though one dwells on the negative while the other seeks some manner of compensation (or denial).

    As far as how widespread such beliefs are, I think that the fight or flight response, which is present in virtually all living things, is more widespread then religious beliefs (how much more I cannot say).

  8. Actually, people generally have visions that are even more reasonable. For example, in a moment of troubles, their beloved, deceased grandfather appears to them and tells them not to worry. (As I was imagining this situation, I could not help imagining my dead son speaking to me.) From the fact that they hear their dead grandfather speaking to them, they conclude that heaven exists and if heaven exists, there must be a benevolent Deity, etc., etc.

  9. Right – well of course one of the argumentative moves I have here is to invoke the hellfire and brimstone version of God (assuming that people accept that belief in my monster is reasonable).

    The mortality thing is interesting. I have a friend in the UK who is terrified of death. He was religious as a young teenager, then not so much in his late teens and early twenties, and now he’s religious again.

    And I know why he’s religious. It enables him to carry on in the face of his own mortality.

    Obviously in one sense that’s a bad reason for believing something. There is no epistemic warrant there at all. But in another sense it seems absolutely reasonable that he embrace his belief (assuming he can manage the cognitive trick of believing something to be true knowing full well that he can’t offer epistemically defensible reasons for his belief, which actually doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly hard trick to pull off). He can’t carry on otherwise.

    I suppose the bottom line here is that it is possible that not all the good reasons for believing something to be true depend on the truth of the thing. In other words, there can be good reasons to believe something to be true even if there is no evidence that it is true, and perhaps even if there are many reasons to think that it might not be true.

  10. Well, I’ve had some daydreams that involved some very productive dialogues with some very reasonable and useful answers. I’ve even dreamed advice from others that was just as useful. I imagine that if someone had a simple chemical imbalance that a mild and un-distressed hallucination could also produce such meaningful results. So, I have feel quite strongly that we have a very valuable capacity to work out possible scenarios right down to very believable responses from the people we know. Having had such a powerful imagination, I feel obligated to acknowledge that the intensity of those experiences may have an irrational influence on the question of religion (though I do think they contribute to the valuation of spirituality).

  11. Of course it’s okay for delusional people to act like they’re delusional. They can’t exactly help it. Of course this applies to a very small minority of people, religious or otherwise.

  12. @Ben

    So when the physicist Russell Stannard says that he experiences the divine in prayer – and also that there are times in his life when he does not have this experience – is he delusional, and therefore “reasonable” in his belief; or is he not delusional, and therefore “unreasonable”.

    I prefer a third option. He’s not delusional, but he is reasonable (though mistaken).

    (Delusional probably isn’t quite the right word here.)

  13. I agree with Jeremy that it is perfectly normal to believe that a monster or God is real based on (1) the vivid nature of the perceptual experience and (2) the disadvantages of believing it not to be true and it actually being true.

    Whether it is reasonable, on the other hand, seems to depend on whether you include accurate perceptual experience within the criteria of ‘being reasonable’?

    Furthermore, there is at least one difference between the thought experiment and the religious belief. With the monster, the person with this horrible experience could quite realistically test whether their perception was faulty. If after conducting a series of ‘behavioural experiments’ which demonstrates clearly that this is a perceptual anomaly and not a reflection of reality they continue to believe the monster is real, then I would doubt they were being reasonable to continue to believe in it being real.

    Unfortunately claims about God are not always testable, and the data can be interpreted one way or another.

  14. Also, I’m not sure that believing something based on the advantages and disadvantages of believing in it is particularly reasonable (is this a sort of pragmatism btw?).

    But let’s accept it is a reasonable strategy – even then, is it still reasonable to believe in (a) the monster and (b) God?

    Very quickly:

    1. Advantages of believing and it is real.

    Monster: You may survive and may not be eaten! You may be able to warn others!

    God: Depends on the particular God, but afterlife is likely! Not going to hell!

    2. Advantages of believing and it’s not real.

    Monster: None (?)

    God: Satisfaction and sense of meaning in life. Lack of dread of dying.

    3. Disadvantages of believing and it is real.

    Monster: None (?)

    God: None (?)

    4. Disadvantages of believing and it is not real.

    Monster: Quite a few actually. You might jump out of a window to escape it (have you seen Ghostbusters?!). You might start to do it’s bidding and hurt yourself or others. You might feel very anxious for no good reason. You might make lots of important decisions on faulty evidence.

    God: You might start to do his or her’s bidding and hurt yourself or others (think Abraham here). You might make lots of important decisions on faulty evidence. And so on.

  15. This reminds me of Moore’s paradox. “It is raining outside but I don’t believe it”.
    It can be true at a particular time both that p, and I do not believe that p
    I am in a slightly different position where g stands for ghosts.
    Not g but I believe g.
    My friend used to have a certain house. When in all innocence I first visited it shortly after she bought it, I felt uneasy, one room in particular I could only enter and remain therein with great difficulty. This I never mentioned, but as time passed my friend and her family began to report on strange occurrences within the property which can only be described as supernatural. In the cold light of day I am sure that ghosts do not exist. My friend asked me to stay there for 14 days to feed the cats etc whilst she was on holiday. Reason fought with superstition and the latter won I refused, but agreed to visit on a daily basis to feed the cats. My visits were fearsome the atmosphere was verging on the unbearable. I needed to leave the front door of the house open to make a speedy exit. The cats fed I fled. All the philosophy and reason I could muster were never sufficient to convince me that it was all in the mind. I still don’t believe in ghosts, but on those occasions I did.

    My point here is that my experiences in the house, never experienced before or since, were veridical, by that I mean real enough, there was something there that reason could not extinguish. Jeremy Stangroom stated:-
    “So the argument is that if an experience seems to have a veridical quality, and if belief in its truth is a matter of pressing and utmost personal significance, then it is reasonable to believe in its truth. If this is right, it follows that religious belief is at least sometimes perfectly reasonable”
    This does seem to fit my feelings in that house. It was a a feeling of pressing and utmost significance, and perfectly reasonable that I should get out of that place.

  16. @Don – That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m trying to get at. Thanks. (Interesting story, by the way.)

    @Paul – Thanks Paul. I’ll respond a little later. Just back from a run!

  17. Don,

    I’ve been in buildings that gave me a strange feeling, but I’m the kind that is quick to find scientific explanations.

    I wonder if I were to offer an alternative explanation that was super natural, would it be as accepted as the intuitive explanation that is dominant for a culture. Suppose, instead of suggesting a ghost explanation, I were to suggest, say, a Feng Shui explanation, saying that the uneasiness was just a matter of bad energy flow and the worst you could expect as a result was bad luck. Would that be given the weight that the ghost explanation was given or would it be dismissed as foolishness? In truth, since there is always a greater number of possible fictions then there are realities, there can always be a greater number of supernatural alternative explanations, simply because they don’t have to conform to any rules other then those that are tolerated by a culture.

    Now suppose, that I suggest a scientific explanation. I have been in buildings with structures that would flex and sway, some less perceptibly then others. Now, Psychology has already determined that sub-sonic sounds can impart a sense of paranoia. So, I have little doubt that a subconsciously perceived sway in a building could leave a person feeling uneasy. But, that’s only one of the many possible scientific explanations, which, again, is less in number then that of the number of possible fictional explanations. Will these explanations also be dismissed because of cultural expectations?

    Of course, it makes sense to exit a building with an unsteady foundation. Does it make sense to neglect calling a building inspector if your feeling is strong enough to warrant never returning to the building but feared that the building inspector might not take you seriously because the feeling felt somehow supernatural? Do we avoid closer inspection to avoid a sense of embarrassment? Do we avoid medical tests for fear of what we might face even if a disease was treatable? I think I have to say that it would be better to risk the ridicule of a building inspector before someone risked raising children in a building with a dangerous foundation.

  18. @Jeremy – Depends on what he means when he says it. But unless he means that he is actually physically seeing or hearing God when he says that he experiences the divine, I don’t think it’s analogous to your monster in the bathroom.

  19. I think, given your post OP, that the more important question is: are all humans religious in the first place? There is some research from cognitive anthropology to suggest even atheists are, and Atran surmises that even New Atheists belief in memes is nearly exactly like religious belief.

    Like the knight said to Indiana Jones: choose wisely.

  20. @Paul – Re your test. Actually I think there’s something similar for religious belief/experience. Russell Stannard talked about his experience of God in prayer. He seemed to suggest that without it then really his faith wouldn’t be rationally justified. He seemed to imply that it was only by experiencing God’s love directly (so to speak) that you could be sure that there were answers to stuff like the problem of evil, etc.

    If that’s right, then the test is whether or not you continue to have the experiences. If you don’t – and he said that there were periods in his life when it didn’t happen – then perhaps you ought to abandon your religious belief.

    (This is not to claim there aren’t other reasons for abandoning it, of course).

  21. @Ben – Well it’s still analogous, it’s just not directly analogous. But it’s analogous in the sense that the experience is veridical. I think that’s the thing which non-believers can’t get their heads around (or many non-believers). That there is a class of experiences that genuinely seem to be be self-evidently true.

    @Tesserid – I’m only guessing here, but I suspect that Don would respond that the nature of his experience was such that he just “knew” that the explanation wasn’t “mundane”. Again, it’s the veridical nature of the experience.

    @Sid – Absolutely. That’s part of what I’m thinking about with this stuff. (Part of the reason why I think that religious experience isn’t a delusion exactly is that I suspect that ultimately it is rooted in an evolved aspect of our minds.)

  22. “If that’s right, then the test is whether or not you continue to have the experiences.”

    Or if he found the experience of God’s love was related to other factors. E.g., he only had it after consuming a certain type of food, drink or other substance. Or if, more realistically, he realised that God’s attributes matched those of some other attachment figure in his life.

    I was thinking some more about the claim “if an experience seems to have a veridical quality, and if belief in its truth is a matter of pressing and utmost personal significance, then it is reasonable to believe in its truth.”

    The danger of the claim is that all sorts of beliefs which were previously thought to be at least slightly unreasonable now become reasonable under this scheme. Some examples:

    1. The spider phobic who, based on the veridical quality of their experience of high anxiety, believes that spiders really are a danger to life and limb.

    2. The person with anorexia who, based on the veridical quality of the experience of looking overweight and the strong desire not to be overweight, chooses not to eat despite doctors telling him or her they will die.

    3. The person with Cotard Delusion who, based on the veridical quality of their experience of lacking emotion, concludes they are in fact dead.

    4. The person with Capgras Syndrome who, based on the veridical quality of a missing sense of familiarity, concludes their loved one has been replaced by an imposter.

    5. The person with a persecutory delusion who, based on the veridical quality of their experience of hearing threatening voices telling them what they are thinking, concludes MI5 have placed broadcasting equipment in the house and intend to harm them.

    There are many other examples, all of which meet criteria for veridical perception and high personal significance. Are people who have these conditions ‘reasonable’ as such?

    The work of Brendan Maher is interesting in this respect. Maher was an influential Harvard psychologist who believed that delusions involve intact reasoning about anomalous perceptual experiences.

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/333l78747381162x/

  23. @Paul

    Interesting stuff!

    I’ll have a think about it. A complication here is that I don’t think that veridical experience means that any conclusion based upon it is reasonable. The conclusion can’t be illogical (I mean that in its strict sense).

    Isn’t there an Iris Murdoch book where there’s a character undergoing psychotherapy (the suspicion is that he’s committed some terrible crime in his past), and the challenge is to show him that his delusions don’t make sense, and therefore are unreasonable. And he never makes a mistake?

    So I guess I might be prepared to bite your bullets here: if the delusions are coherent and based on veridical experience, and of pressing and utmopst personal significance, then they are reasonable.

    But yes, this is food for thought.

  24. ps – Spiders really are a danger to life and limb (well some spiders)! :)

  25. Yes, the counter to Maher (who essentially takes the view that people classified as delusional are making reasonable interpretations of odd experiences) is, well, that this can’t be the whole answer! Why don’t people reject their initial interpretation once the weight of evidence stacks up against it?

    Many believe in a 2-stage theory of delusions. Stage 1 involves aberrant experience and interpretation (although see Bell et al., 2008*) and stage 2 involves some sort of reduced capacity for re-evaluating the initial interpretation (this can be for emotional or neuropsychological reasons).

    *http://journals.lww.com/jonmd/Abstract/2008/01000/Are_Anomalous_Perceptual_Experiences_Necessary_For.2.aspx

  26. Interesting. I had this conversation with Robin Murray. He was taking the line that delusions were reasonable explanations of strange experiences. My question was: well if I start hearing voices, I hope the explanation that I come up with is that my brain is screwed. So why isn’t that the normal response?

    I think his answer was that he thought it was something about the quality of the experience (so it might be the veridical thing), rather than a reduced capacity for interpretation (which I think I was leaning towards).

    Of course, if it is a matter of a reduced capacity for interpretation, then that has interesting implications for what we class as being “reasonable”!

    I should say that Robin Murray was doing the whole didactic thing – that was the nature of the interview – so his responses won’t necessarily be indicative of his views.

  27. As a result of this thread, I had a strange experience yesterday. My son, Pablo, died 8 years ago, and I began to imagine him speaking to me. Generally, I can turn my fantasies off when I want to, but this fantasy stayed with me, talked to me and promised to watch over me. It was clear to me that he “was in my head”: for example, his expression and clothing were exactly those of the photo which heads my blog, but I can see how if he had appeared to me in other circumstances and if I were less of a confirmed rationalist, I would have welcomed his spirit into my life and perhaps I did on some level.

  28. Amos – Well I want to give you a hug (in a manly way, obviously!). But, you know, it’s this sort of thing that partly motivated this post and which in a roundabout way annoys the hell out of me about the New Atheists (please note the “in a roundabout way”: I’m perfectly well aware that (many/most?) New Atheists don’t want to talk individual theists out of beliefs they find comforting, blah, blah… (that’s not addressed to you Amos, by the way)).

    I have some friends who lost their daughter at a very young age after she caught a tropical disease while they were in Kenya. I get the impression the only reason they’re able to go on – particularly the mother, who is psychologically vulnerable anyway – is because they’re convinced she’s in heaven and they’ll see her again.

    (Incidentally, I’ve talked about this stuff before on here.)

    Needless to say, in one sense this belief is unreasonable. It doesn’t even make logical sense really. But, in another sense, it’s entirely reasonable. Of course, the obvious response to the point I’m making is that I’m mixing up different senses of reasonable, etc (which is so obvious as not to need saying).

    But, you know, the issue of whether beliefs are justified – and indeed the ontology of belief – is not straightforward. I’m not convinced that there is any clear demarcation between warranted beliefs and unwarranted beliefs. I think it’s a mess largely.

  29. Very interesting to hear that Robin Murray was taking that line.

    That’s probably the view I subscribe to as well – mostly. It helps to explain what’s going on for a lot of people who receive help or take part in research. However I think it’s clearly possible that some of the things labelled as delusions are a consequence of changes in reasoning – either in addition to perceptual changes or on their own (mostly the former, I would say).

    A lot of the time people do stuff to keep themselves safe which maintains their belief and sometimes increases the frequency of the experience. E.g.,

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2006.01.014

    Re hearing voices and making sense of it. I guess the normal response is not necessarily to say one’s brain is screwed. This neglects to acknowledge the positive nature of the experience for a lot of people. Some 80% of older people who lose a loved one will have some sort of hallucination regarding the person they lost – this can be a wholly positive thing. A bunch of other people interpret hearing voices in a religious or spiritual way (e.g., Andrew et al., 2008*). About 10% of children have the experience quite regularly and most value it.

    I think the way people make sense of hearing voices depends quite a lot on their background as well as ‘metacognitive beliefs’ (beliefs about mental events). Being open to the idea of spirits, Gods and so on seems relevant to the amount of distress experienced and indeed the likelihood of having the experience. Culture is a major factor in recovery from mental illness – people seem to do much better in countries more accepting of unusual experiences / beliefs.

    *http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=2178024

  30. Sorry Amos / Jeremy – we cross-posted. But I guess my comment is relevant to both of the experiences you report. That is, it’s a pretty normal thing to have these sorts of experiences.

  31. @Paul – Again very interesting, and I need time to read the stuff you’re citing (keep doing that, if you’re inclined – I am genuinely interested).

    A quick question: is there any research, etc., dealing with the reliability of self-reports of hearing voices?

  32. No worries – I like discussing this stuff.

    Re the reliability of self-report – just wondering in what sense you mean? Do you mean compared to an objective measure or do you mean over time?

    Amos, might I add how sorry I am to hear about your loss. The experience you report is valuable and profound, in my view. It reminded me of a great article here;

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ghost-stories-visits-from-the-deceased

  33. Paul

    Sorry I wasn’t clear. I mean various things really.

    Robin Murray talked about the voices that schizophrenics hear like this:

    When people are acutely disturbed, they hear these voices as clear as a bell, as if it were someone talking to them. Indeed, often it will seem as if the voices are coming at them through a loudspeaker. As they begin to recover, people may say that the voices aren’t so loud, or that they seem to be further away, and as they get better, they will often say that the voices seem to be in their head, that they don’t seem to be from the outside. And then when they’re really improving, they say that sometimes they don’t know whether it is a voice or a thought. They begin to integrate the voices back into their thoughts.

    So if somebody reports to a psychiatrist that they’re hearing voices there are a number of possibilities (and I’m simplifying for the purposes of illustration):

    1. They’re hearing voices in the sense described above;

    2. It’s just inner speech – perhaps slightly more persistent than usual – but not “outside the head”;

    3. It’s just inner speech, but the person has a strong motivation to interpret it as something else (i.e., they have lost a loved one and are deriving comfort from the idea that their experiences are indicative of some continuing connection, etc);

    And so on.

    So my question is – how do you sort all that out (I do realise that there won’t always be any clear demarcation between speech from within and speech from without, etc)?

  34. I think a slight problem with this approach is the tautology involved. I.e.,

    Voices becoming quieter = improvement

    Improvement = voices becoming quieter.

    That is, it fails to account for people who define themselves as ‘better’ yet the voices haven’t changed in loudness or externality (although loudness and externality do matter to many).

    A slightly different, but complementary, approach is to consider other dimensions of voice-hearing and their related interpretation which relate to distress. We tend to use something called the PSYRATS* and a measure called the PANSS**

    I’d say the PSYRATS is better able to capture the dimensions of voice-hearing that matter to people who ask for help (intensity, negative content, distress, controllability, disruption to life – as well as externality and volume).

    The PANSS, in my view, is fairly traditional and doesn’t necessarily take into account the subjective views of people asking for help. It’s used all the time in drug trials though.

    *http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0920996406002131
    **http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_and_Negative_Syndrome_Scale

    I would also say the sensation of a voice being out of the head is still inner thought – but inner thought attributed by the person to an external source.

    Also, the role of motivation (positive beliefs) is important in continued hallucinations for many people, but negative beliefs about uncontrollability and danger seems to be important in determining whether this is distressing or not.

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2003.08.009

  35. Thanks Paul. I need to do some other work right now. But I’ll get back to you on this stuff. Thanks again!

  36. Jeremy, Paul. Thanks to you both. Saul Bellow says somewhere that the ability to accept ambivalence or maybe it was ambiguity is a sign of mental health. So psychic realities are real and they are not real. To put it in Wittgenstein’s terms, some things in real in certain language games and not real in others.

  37. My experiences in the haunted house were and still are in direct opposition to my innate disposition, propensities, or whatever they are called. The result being that from childhood upwards I tend, rightly or wrongly, to view almost everything from a scientific/philosophical stance. At a very early age I had quite a thoroughgoing theory concerning the non-existence of Father Christmas.

    I had experiences in that house which I cannot deny, I responded as one would do when faced with danger i.e. fled. Those who lived there are reliable normal people with whom I have close attachment. They reported visual, and acoustic, phenomena, together with displacement of objects in the house and loss and later replacement of objects. All this accompanied by the feeling that another person or persons occupied the property. I carried out extensive questioning of the real life occupants and took photographs where phenomena was stated to be most frequent; they revealed nothing.

    I remain still mystified, there seems two alternatives here either to believe in Ghosts or to think that an explanation must exist be it, Physical, psychological, technological and so on.
    Quantum theory and Relativity certainly have shown the possibility of states of affairs which seem to be beyond the present powers of human cognition.

    Faced with all this what is one to believe? It seems to be to be largely down to what kind of person one is, how suggestible that person is, or even perhaps what one would like to believe. It also depends on the environment wherein one’s beliefs are formed. Conditions like Capgras and Cotard are generated by trauma to certain parts of the right cerebral cortex and can exist concurrently in the same patient. If as has been suggested the beliefs of these sufferers are generated out of anomalous perceptual experiences as a result of the trauma, then for that person they are presumably true and they take appropriate action which is manifested in what we term their delusions, but for them is appropriate. As Amos has pointed out it depends which language game you are in.

    All I know is that when in that house there was, and I believe so, something unwholesome and repelling. For want of a better word I call it ghostly. Outside of the house I am not so sure about ghosts but presently all my limited knowledge of science and philosophy is not adequate to explain it. I was tempted before one visit to feed the cats, to take a bible with me. I told myself not to be ridiculous.

    Casting my mind back to when my friend first viewed the house with a view to purchase I remember she said to me “strange people there, they have crucifixes all over the place”.

    I must say that as a person who has always stood at the threshold of atheism I noted whilst I was a patient in an accident ward, quite concerned about my prospects, other patient were attended to by the visiting clergyman. The strength and comfort they obviously derived from what was and is for me, almost certainly an erroneous belief, made me envy them. So I guess if it works for you, and does not harm others, then use it.

  38. Don

    You may, or may not, find this thing I wrote a while ago at Butterflies and Wheels interesting.

    http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/notesarchive.php?id=1378

    Not as impressive as your experience, but still… odd.

  39. This is a well-made point. I think, of course, one should be completely free to believe in such metaphorical “imposing, veridical monsters”, even if they are not so particularly imposing or veridical. However, the issue with religious belief should never be in the purported illogicality of it, but in its imposing limitations on positive progress. Also, the metaphor breaks down in that the monster can’t be limited to religious belief; all belief is belief, be it superstitious or philosophical. As we discover the monster is intersubjective through representation and signification, we must try to understand it (why it is different for everyone) collectively…

  40. Don & Amos, I’d be interested in knowing more about the concept of language games and how this might apply to such experiences and beliefs. I don’t know much about Wittgenstein – would either of you be able to suggest a good short introduction?

  41. Jeremy, I read your post at butterflies and wheels. Very interesting and very hard to account for!

    Without reigniting the debate here (and I didn’t read all the comments so this may have been raised before) I wonder whether a mixture of unconscious exposure to Gertrude Bell plus unconscious ‘cold-reading’ on your part might explain it?

    I remember Derren Brown discussing with Richard Dawkins the idea that many cold-readers actually believe they have this skill – reading subtle cues is just something they are very good at, without realising that’s what they’re doing.

  42. Paul

    Yeah, it is quite hard to account for.

    The trouble with the unconscious cue/cold reading explanation is that it doesn’t really account for the strange nature of the experience. It was – or seemed to be – genuinely veridical. Also, I didn’t know the name of the woman: I just knew she’d been involved in the partitioning or whatever it was that led to the formation of Iraq.

    I haven’t had any other experiences like it. Of course, I’ve had hunches that have turned out to be correct. But not this certainty… and not with having announced in advance that I was going to get the right answer.

    Not sure. It must have some natural explanation. But I don’t think it’s coincidence…

    I really don’t know!

  43. I just mentioned that we were discussing this to Cheryl.

    She said: “Oh God, I was just thinking about that again the other day.” :)

  44. Paul: I’m far from an expert on Wittgenstein (so please correct me if I’m wrong), but Wittgenstein’s concept of language games in the Philosophical Investigations has to be seen in the context of his earlier position in the Tractatus in which he says that all meaningful propositions (or sentences) are about facts. In the Investigations, he notes that we use language for many other activities besides stating facts and that those other activities, called language games, are equally valid. So if I say that Pablo (my son) lives, I am not playing the same language game as is a doctor when
    he states that patient X, in the emergency room of a hospital, lives. I think that part of Jeremy’s criticism of the new atheists is that they assume that the only language game in town is stating facts. I have Anthony Kenny’s book on Wittgenstein, excellent and recommended, but probably hopelessly out of date.

  45. Thanks Amos

  46. Paul, re

    I remember Derren Brown discussing with Richard Dawkins the idea that many cold-readers actually believe they have this skill – reading subtle cues is just something they are very good at, without realising that’s what they’re doing.

    There’s also an Orson Welles interview where he says (paraphrased) “The occupational disease of fraudulent fortune tellers [is] called ‘becoming a shut-eye’, [which is] is the fellow who begins to believe himself.” And, he then goes on to tell the story of how he gave up cold reading the day this happened to him. The video is no longer on YouTube, but I fount it here:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4427001931181393750#

  47. Eileen Barker – sociology of religion person at LSE (did research on moonies) – told this story about a research student of hers who had joined some cult in order to investagate them.

    He knew that he was in too deep when he one day found himself chasing some person down the road, cursing them, and believing they were damned for all eternity, because they wouldn’t take his literature (or something).

  48. Alfred Schutz, a sociologist, has a theory of multiple realities, which is built on the premise that it is possible to identify, at least in principle, an infinite number of orders of reality, each defined by its own peculiar cognitive style. Basically, he thinks that there exist numerous modes of experiencing the world, each constituting, to the extent that it transforms the world according to its own image, a ‘sub-world’ or a ‘sub-universe’.

    Schutz terms such worlds, finite provinces of meaning, and mentions, as examples, the realms of science, dream, theatre and religion. He specifies these along a number of common axes, which include: tension of consciousness; form of spontaneity; mode of experiencing oneself; form of sociality; and time-perspective.

    Each finite province of meaning is ‘real’ whilst it is attended to by virtue of the consistency and compatibility of experiences which define it. As we transition between ‘worlds’, Schutz argues we experience something akin to a shock. He mentions, as examples, the shock of falling to sleep as the transition into the realm of dreams; the Kierkegaardian “leap” into the world of religious experience; and the transformation that occurs as the curtain rises in a theatre.

    I think these ideas are actually rooted in William James (Schutz cites James thus):

    ‘Each world whilst it is attended to is real after its own fashion; only the reality lapses with the attention.’

  49. Of course a philosopher can come up with a defence of religious belief. But with absolutely no scientific proof of the existence of god nor any convincing logical arguments — why bother ?

  50. Eitan – Because if religious belief in the absence of scientific proof and logical arguments is reasonable, then their absence is not (necessarily) a reason for giving up said belief.

  51. How can the absence of logic be reasonable ie of reason ?

  52. Well you need to read the argument. It’s a logical argument for the reasonableness of belief (in certain circumstances).

    But it isn’t a logical argument to prove that god exists.

    There’s a difference.

    And you need to work on your conversational style if you want me to take you seriously. Gnomic questions ain’t going to do it.

  53. Eitan,
    Is it illogical to ask “why does the universe exist”? or “what does man have that enables him to bend the other beasts to his will”?

  54. Paul yes, as Amos says Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” is well worth looking at. You may need to sort within it to find what you want but of course the index under language is the place to start. Additionally you might like to try and old tutor of mine, Hans-Johan Glock “A Wittgenstein Dictionary” published in 1996 p193-198. Have a look also at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language-game this is a very good start.

    I have never been much of a fan of Wittgenstein I will not say why as someone will doubtless slaughter me (verbally) as a result. However I suspect that it may be due to some shortcoming in myself.

    I think you may already be familiar with “Pathologies of Belief” edited by Max Coltheart and Martin Davies 2000; if not it is well worth looking at. Similar stuff as you may be aware has also been written by Ramachandran and also Sacks but they are more of a popularising nature I think. I consider such reading is vital if we are to make any, shall I say philosophical progress, with the problem of belief.

  55. Yes I think I get what you are saying. Your argument about why someone should believe that the monster is real under the conditions you set out is a logical argument and it is understandable that any one might believe in what is not true under those circumstances.

  56. No, it’s *reasonable* that they might believe in what isn’t epistemically warranted under those circumstances.

    Accuracy is important here.

  57. WTP
    “Is it illogical to ask “why does the universe exist”? or “what does man have that enables him to bend the other beasts to his will”?

    No it is not illogical neither is it illogical to philosophize on the existence of God or reasons for religious belief. But that is different from coming up with a defence for religious belief.

  58. Yes it is not epistemically warranted under those circumstances to believe in the monster. But it is reasonable (they are using their reasoning skills)to come to a conclusion that the monster exists. Am I on the right track ?

  59. I think you can cash out “reasonable” in a number of ways.

    But the schema I had in mind was that the belief:

    1. Is not contrary to logic;

    2. Is supported by veridical experience;

    3. Is of pressing and utmost personal significance.

    Some of that is to do with reason (Part 1 and aspects of Part 3, presumably). Some of it is to do with evidence (Part 2). And some of it is to do with motivation (Part 3).

    But, of course, there’s more to be said here (for example about alternative explanations, etc).

  60. Thanks Don, haven’t read ‘pathologies of belief’ but, yes, I was referring to their work re the 2-stage theory of delusions.

    Will try and access ‘A Wittgenstein Dictionary’. Thanks!

  61. TesserId, that’s a brilliant Welles interview.

    Becoming a ‘shut-eye’ – excellent term which I will have to try and remember!

  62. Eitan,
    So if it is not illogical to philosophize on the existence of God, is it illogical to believe your gut instinct that there is one and to go looking for proof of him? Or to presume that one exists and behave accordingly?

    Or similarly, suppose a physicist truly believed in a Grand Unifying Theory of physics and spent his life seeking proof of it. Would that be illogical? So long as he was open to the idea that he might be wrong, would it be illogical to compare new discoveries primarily in the context of what he believed and only discarding that belief if the new discovery was absolute in its incompatibility with that belief? Is that man’s “faith” indefensible?

  63. Paul, I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I’m glad I remembered it. It just shows how much we underestimate the power or our intuitive abilities. And, we have to allow that such intuition can influence logical reasoning.

    And, to inject a little humor, a quote from a movie I watched a bit of last night. The character has delusions of being God and is asked “How do you know you’re God?”, and responds “When I pray, I find that I’m talking to myself.”

    Something that is often missing from such discussions is the issue that even if the existence of God were proven (or religious beliefs validated, as is the topic here), we would still have to deal with wrong ideas about nature of God and religion.

  64. WTP
    No physicist believes in the Grand Unifying Theory of physics or any theory of physics from a gut instinct alone. It may start from the imagination or a gut instinct but that idea goes nowhere unless they put in the hard scientific work. Physicists work on evidence and the notion that their theories are in principle falsifiable. If you are saying that religious folk should work on the same hard and intellectually rigorous scientific principles then I agree with you.
    The question of whether god exists is a scientific question. Why wouldn’t it be ?
    Believers can live their entire lives according to strict logical principles and act reasonably as if there is a god even if she does not exist and never did. Show me the proof, evidence, watertight logical argument (not the dubious ontological proof blown out the water by Kant and so many others) and we can put this particular baby to bed once and for all.

  65. Yep yep, jolly good. I’m glad that religion’s coming to the forefront of thought again in our generation and that, when asked, 10 of the leading thinkers on our planet very kindly agreed with me! Come on, we can’t stay on this hamster wheel forever, our species needs to GO places!

    The reality of subjective experience can’t be denied. Hey Descartes, we can’t verify the fact that you’re thinking about yourself so therefore, kind sir, you are NOT!

    What I reckon is that the baby got thrown out with the bathwater in our pursuit of empirical evidence. I don’t think you’d get too many signatures on a petition to abolish the notion of love based on the fact that test-tube experiments can’t produce evidence. And the subjective experience of belief is no less real. Surely the problem is the criteria that science employs to determine reality. A rainbow can’t be disassembled. Science has some theories about how the pretty colours in the sky form, but the pot of gold is obtained by answering the question of WHY! Any superficially sound theories that can only answer HOW are surely not much further along the spectrum that the Aristotelian notion that objects behave the way they do because they have an innate desire to do so. WHY is that desire there brethren??! (Like I had an innate desire to put two question marks after that last sentence, but the actual origin of the punctuation marks wan’t the keyboard. They stem from a yearning for meaning in my INTANGIBLE, spiritual self!

  66. Josh
    How can god guarantee the WHY answers to life when the HOW questions of god’s existence or non existence remain completely unanswered?
    To say that there are subjective or metaphysical things that will never open themselves up to scientific enquiry in now way means that god exists.
    There is a physiology to love and thought. Granted the feeling of love is subjective to you or I but not exclusively subjective. One can observe the physical characteristics of love and thoughts, study them, do experiments etc, even though the unique experience can only ever be available to one person.
    This subjective phenomena of love and thoughts are to do with us and no one else, are part of us, from us, uniquely our experiences.
    The subjective experience of god is different. It is a subjective experience of something not from us. It is of something else out there. Somewhere in the wider reality. This other thing (god) has independence from us in a way that our thoughts and feelings don’t.
    If that is the case then why not study god objectively?
    It surely must mean something that scientists do not deem it worthwhile to carry out experiments to determine if god exists. Unless you know of any experiments – and any which have come back with any useful or compelling data ? Please let us know of them.
    It is interesting that you compare god to the subjectivity of love and though and you don’t compare god to the objectivity of lovers and thinkers.

  67. Actually it’d be good if this thread didn’t turn into a conversation about whether or not God exists.

    Mainly because I find it tedious and boring. Plus it so easily gets nasty, and I don’t have the time to watch carefully to make sure people play nicely.

    Mind you, I will just point out that Russell Stannard wrote a book called “The God Experiment”.

  68. Jeremy
    I agree. I must check out that book

  69. Jeremy.

    Yeah cool man, thou art king of this thread so feel free to give it a little nudge in your direction of choice. Actually this is the first collection of 1’s and 0’s I’ve ever added to a thread so I’m not exactly a netiquette meistro (and the queen rudely declined my request for lessons!) So although I might be doing the equivalent of disecting my soup starter with a fish knife, I’m gonna reply to Eitan cos it’s fun. The topic seems to be about the effects of subjective reality. Philosophy’s niche is the unproved and abstract; we’ve gotta step out of our comfort zones and into tentative turf. Although both religious fanatics and atheists will employ endless defense mechanisms to justify the way they choose to live their lives, hopefully philosophers can step back from that (at least to a relative extent). And hey, we’re lucky that modern-day Galileos aren’t at much risk of being placed under house arrest for controversial ideas (besides the voluntary house arrest that internet addiction places us under!) Ya, so I’ll reply to Eitan and then tip toe on my merry way if you wag your finger at me and sat that I’m leading the conversation astray. I’ve read the book by the way, it’s yummy.

    Right Eitan bruv:

    As to the how before the why and he what we can know…check it out:
    Our current level of consciousness is still too dualistic to produce scientific theories that objectify a seemingly paradoxical God (like we need to objectify in order to verify, but we’re “made in His image” and can’t objectify spiritual composition etc).
    It’s not all apophatic vibes though cos, like countless thinkers of previous centuries have expounded (ya, the “scientists” of yesteryear DID deem it worthy to pursue these threads), there are certain things we can wrap our finite minds around and certain things that need to be supplemented by “Divine revelation”, as Aquinas calls it. Then there’s a big old chunka other principles that we just can’t know. You know, kinda like Johari’s window. According to Biblical theology, (which I’m not trying to advocate but rather using cos it’s largely been the focus of western philosophy), God’s set things up so that we can never totally prove His existence, cos if we could then EVERYONE would worship Him (as in survival of the fittest: worship God or DIE type vibe!). But, they say, God wants us to CHOOSE Him through faith (vs angels without free will). So He’s constructed our consciousness in such a way that we just aren’t able to empirically verify His existence with our current scientific notions.

    SUbjectivity:
    Surely philosophy’s role is to examine the power of subjective perception to influence our objective realities. Well, just like love can be verified by observation: googly-eyed…check, etc., so can the effects of faith. There are countless data of that (including MRI scans that verify the cerebral activity of both love and faith and the whole meditational fiasco). These outward affects (the “fruit” these phenomena produce) CAN be verified. But just like a jealous lover may be a bad exemplary of the virtue of love, many people of faith are making it way too easy to construct straw-man fallacies against their beliefs.

    But hey, we can always conduct personal subjective experimentation!

  70. @Josh – I’m not going to delete your post, but in the future you could tone down the street style. Just because I suspect you’ve got interesting things to say, and I’m happy for you to say them here, but your style… well I sense it might be a barrier to understanding!

  71. Affirmative sire!
    25 going on 55 coming up! ;)

  72. Hi Jeremy, perhaps I am too late to this discussion, but I just wanted to say that I don’t think religious experience IS veridical, at least most of the time. It’s mostly emotional, I think. I grew up in a born-again Christian fellowship, and I have chatted with many believers of varying stripes, and the impression I get is that belief in god is more like falling in love than seeing visions. Mystics talk about a merging with all that is, which also sounds to me like falling in love, except not with another person, but with existence itself. I have had such experiences myself after ingesting hallucinogens.

    There have been reports of veridical experiences, such as Gabriel appearing before Mary and a few hundred years later to Mohammed, but this is no reason for other people to believe in god, and I think many believers use these second-hand anecdotal experiences to justify their emotions.

    Interesting food for thought, however, so thanks. I run a Secular Society at my university, so I would like to post your argument up for discussion on our Facebook group: would that be OK with you?

  73. Hi Emily

    Ah well, you could well be right about the absence of veridicality. I’m also suspicious about it (though I should say I also think that at least some of the experience probably do seem genuinely veridical). Not least, there must be a huge temptation to tell yourself that the experience is verdical when in fact it’s no such thing.

    Yes, of course, feel free to post up the argument on Facebook.

  74. Thank-you, I will.

    I do think it obvious that under some conditions it is justified that emotional motives take precedence over rational ones. However, I think that can only be a personal solution, not a socially prescriptive one, and it seems to me religion has a historical and contemporary tendency to be a prescriptive force, a rather authoritarian, intolerant and violent one at that. I suppose personal veridical or non-veridical mystical experiences aren’t the problem in and of themselves, but only when they are foisted on to others, whether via force or indoctrination.

    Incidentally, there are those who DO become convinced that their mystical experiences achieved via hallucinogens are veridical. They consider themselves modern day shamans in commune with the spirit world, and refer to hallucinogens as “entheogens.” It is very difficult to convince them otherwise. They would be a political force if they could, however there are too few of them and they are too disparate. Perhaps religious belief becomes political when people become too sure their experiences are genuine, ie become convinced they ARE veridical? If this is the case, wouldn’t that justify “new” atheism – atheist activism – to some degree?

    Hope I haven’t veered off topic.

  75. Hello Emily: I think you’re coming from the tropics and I’m coming from the arctic or maybe it’s vice-versa: you’re coming from too much religion and I’m coming from an over dose of atheism. I can assure you that atheism, when it becomes militant and fanatic, can be as mentally stifling as old-time religion.

  76. Hmmmm.

    I’m not sure I accept that there is an easy distinction between emotional and rational motives (precisely part of what I’m arguing here is that it can be *reasonable* – and in a sense rational – to believe what is not epistemically warranted).

    Also I think you’re missing some of the connections in your justification for “new” atheism argument. For example, even if it were true that there is a link between convinction based on experience and religious political conservatism (which I’m not sure about, and you’d have to demonstrate to make your argument work), it doesn’t follow that it justifies “new atheism” unless you can demonstrate that new atheism is the most effective response to it (which, to be honest, I think is very doubtful).

    Also, there’s seems to be an assumption here that “new atheism” requires a justification. That certainly isn’t something I’d want to argue. My problem with new atheism is that it isn’t nearly smart enough. (Well that’s one of the problems I have with it). But I wouldn’t want to argue that it shouldn’t exist.

  77. Amos, *chuckle.* Perhaps. But I’m not sure atheist activism is militant, although I suppose it has its fair share of fanatics, like any movement. The “militant” label for atheism is a bit of a red herring in my opinion. There are more fitting pejoratives available in this case.

    Jeremy, I think you are right that there is no easy distinction between emotional and rational motives. Maybe I am a case in point: a passionate rationalist?

    I think the link between religiosity and political conservatism is one that has been examined in many a psychology paper, and it seems to me that there is some kind of correlation, although a very complex one with lots of potentially confounding variables. So not a conclusive position, but at least a plausible one.

    And I don’t know if “new” atheism is an effective response or not, perhaps it’s too early to tell. What constitutes effective atheism anyway? Thanks for engaging me on this, much appreciated.

  78. Emily

    I think the link between religiosity and political conservatism is one that has been examined in many a psychology paper

    Yes, but that wasn’t your original claim, or at least not the claim I was responding to!

    You said:

    religious belief becomes political when people become too sure their experiences are genuine

    It’s the “when people become too sure their *experiences* are genuine” bit I’m doubtful about, not a general correlation between religiosity and political conservatism. (Though actually that won’t be straightforward. In the UK, for example, there’s a long tradition that links certain kinds of religion and political radicalism.)

  79. Hmm, Jeremy, it does seem I have shifted the goalposts. Perhaps I should have said “the link between LEVELS of religiosity and political conservatism.” It does seem plausible to me that the more certain someone is about their belief in their god (and, as a corollary, their religion) the more likely they are to campaign on that basis, especially if their holy texts expressly bid them to do so. Likewise, fanatical atheists would have to be pretty sure of their beliefs in order to take them so vigorously into the public arena.

    Also, it’s not really political conservatism I am referring to necessarily, it’s political religionism, whatever those religious beliefs may be and where they fall on the political spectrum. In using the word “conservatism” I was referring to your previous post and did not introduce the term to the discussion. My entheogen-ingesting friends are, unsurprisingly, extremely radical in relation to their religious beliefs.

  80. Emily

    I really think it’s more complex than you’re supposing.

    Do you know any of the sociological literature on new religious movements? The work of people such as Roy Wallis suggests that there is really quite a complex relationship between religiosity and the secular world, depending on whether a NRM is world-rejecting, world-affirming or world-accommodating.

    Basically, I’m not convinced that there are simple patterns or processes at work here. I suppose I could be persuaded – or it doesn’t seem implausible – that a fairly high level of religiosity is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition of “political religionism” (though this isn’t a no-brainer: some sociologists have argued that religiosity itself is frequently motivated by secular concerns). But I’m doubtful that you could predict political involvement from the mere fact of religiosity (or at least I’d need to see proper empirical evidence before I was convinced).

    I was referring to your previous post and did not introduce the term to the discussion

    True enough. But you did say that:

    religion has a historical and contemporary tendency to be a prescriptive force, a rather authoritarian, intolerant and violent one at that.

    I was using “conservatism” as shorthand for that (which is probably unfair to conservatives, except that I guess that many fundamentalist protestants – you know, Bible Belt types – would self-identify as conservatives).

  81. Eric MacDonald

    I’m probably too late to enter this particular discussion. However, as I read it I have a experience of disorientation, as though the world had suddenly stopped having even indistinct contours. Let me start at the beginning with Jeremy’s succinct statement of the position.

    So the argument is that if an experience seems to have a veridical quality [though it isn’t veridical], and if belief in its truth is a matter of pressing and utmost personal significance, then it is reasonable to believe in its truth.

    This is basically William James’ position in “The Will to Believe.” This is where Wittgenstein’s idea of language games does come into play with some profit, because it introduces the idea of intersubjective checks on veridicality, which is the element that is missing from the way the argument is framed, which includes the problem of individuating experiences without external (objective) checks. Wittgenstein becomes relevant to this discussion mainly with regard to what he has to say about private languages. You have your beetle in your box (your private veridical/non-veridical experience), and I have my beetle in my box.

    The problem is that the criteria of identification are too vague and intersubjectively unavailable.

    (i) What is it to have an experience that seems veridical (yet really isn’t)? You tell me that you have such an experience. How am I to know what that means (to you)? (This corresponds to Wm. James’ ‘live option’.)
    (ii) What makes believing something a life and death option (what Wm James called a forced option)?

    (I’m afraid I’m referring to James’ essay without having read it since sometime in the ’60s, last century!)

    Language, as Wittgenstein might say, seems to be idling here. One of the important parts of Jeremy’s story lies in the thought: “And then it happens. It’s late at night. You’re alone in your bathroom, and the monster comes crashing in through the window – at least this is what you experience – and it’s on you.” It’s the aloneness that makes the difference here, because there’s no one to help discriminate false from true, veridical from non-veridical experiences. (Though when you engage the monster, and don’t end up really mauled and bloody, perhaps that’s a hint!)

    And that’s precisely the situation with respect to religious beliefs (which Jeremy doesn’t want us to discuss: but the title is, “In defence of religious belief”!). As Antony Flew said a long time ago, the main questions about religion start with the identity of god as the bearer of the divine predicates. And here language seems to be idling too, since we can’t point to anything in the world that serves to identify the being in question, and the experiences, though apparently veridical, tend to be so discrepant and incommensurable. (Although sometimes people say things like, “I’ve had that experience too!” Though how do you know that they’ve had the same experience, and this isn’t just a case of supporting each others ignorances?)

  82. @Eric

    Cool, I’m impressed with myself that I’ve managed to come up with William James’s argument while lying in bed thinking about monsters! :)

  83. Eitan (if you’re still around),
    “WTP
    No physicist believes in the Grand Unifying Theory of physics or any theory of physics from a gut instinct alone. It may start from the imagination or a gut instinct but that idea goes nowhere unless they put in the hard scientific work.”

    But that’s my point…excluding the “No physist believes” part, but perhaps I should have said “believes in the existance of” to be distinct from the religious “believes in”. Because he believes in his gut that the answer is there, he spends his time doing research in that direction…the hard scientific work you speak of. But he doesn’t know if he will be successful. Perhaps he goes to his grave never proving GUT, and then 5 years later someone does. Was he illogical in his effort? Now suppose someone who has only a casual interest in physics believes that physist will eventually be proven correct. Is he illogical to think this?

    Getting back to the original question that prompted me to respond:
    “But with absolutely no scientific proof of the existence of god nor any convincing logical arguments — why bother ?”
    That is what (the few honest) religious people are seeking. Maybe they are wrong, but I wouldn’t say it’s illogical for them to behave in accordance with what they believe. Just for context, I see religion as a messy, ugly business and I despise most of it.

    You state “Believers can live their entire lives according to strict logical principles and act reasonably as if there is a
    god even if she does not exist and never did.” Yep. Is defending that so illogical? I refer to: “No it is not illogical neither is it illogical to philosophize on the existence of God or reasons for religious belief. But that is different from coming up with a defence for religious belief.” Or did you refer specifically to this (Monster) defence of relgious belief?

  84. Eric MacDonald

    Ah, Jeremy, it may be cool, but was he (and are you) right? I don’t think either of you are, so I wouldn’t smile too broadly yet. Clever though! ;-)

    As I say, I think the problem here lies in the same place for your monsters as it does for the religious in their idea of god. If you’re faced with the experience, alone, of a monster in your bedroom, you suggest that it is reasonable to believe in the monster if it is a life and death matter.

    That’s a bit like saying that fear of ghosts in cemeteries is reasonable if you have had an “experience” of a ghost in a cemetery. But what does that mean? Just a creepy crawly feeling in the dark? Something that others experience with you? And what does it mean to say that they have the same experience? What would it mean, for example, to go back with your friends to check to see if you both have the same experience? The only way to check the experience is to have something independent of experience to correlate it with. It’s not even clear that you can speak about the same experience (sorry to be repetitious, but that’s part of the problem) if you don’t have this independent correlate.

    I’m listening to Deepak Chopra in the background debating with Michael Shermer, and he’s just gone through a list of gods. And then he says he’s going deeper to a deeper level of reality where we will find a transcendent intelligence, and he speaks of it in terms of non-locality. But what would that be? How, when we get to that, will we account for our experience or ideas? What is it that we will be pointing to? If there is nothing that both of us have access to – outside of our descriptions of our experiences – how can we know that we are pointing to the same thing? Most accounts of religious experience come down, in the end, to something “oceanic”, or absolute, in some sense, the feeling of absolute dependence, the numinous, or what have you. But what is that feeling, that experience? I hear the words, and there may indeed be feelings correlated with those words, but why should one person speaking of an oceanic experience think that that experiece is similar to someone else who speaks of having an oceanic experience? I guess my question is: why wouldn’t you try to find out what is wrong, instead of believing something? But if this is so, where does the reasonableness of the belief go?

  85. Eric, even I don’t think I’m right, but I’m not telling where I think I’m wrong! :)

    I feel bad about not responding properly to your posts. I’ve sort of moved on, and I’m caught up in other stuff, but if I get a moment I’ll check back, and say something… err… well something at least!

  86. Tell you what, though, Eric, something I am interested in knowing.

    You were a minister of some sort, weren’t you?

    Did you have these sorts of experiences – you know, in prayer?

    If not, what story did you tell yourself about why you didn’t?

    If you did – did they just stop?

    Sorry, I know this is just biographical stuff, but I’m curious. Obviously you’ll just ignore the questions if you don’t want to respond.

  87. I feel like there are several arguments in this post, and not all of them make as much sense as the best of them.

    1. Is it reasonable to believe in the monster while you’re experiencing it? Well, probably. You’re having the experience at that very moment, its the sort of experience that makes it likely that you will not be able to make careful, considered judgments, and its the sort of situation where you need to make a very quick decision. It would be reasonable to make a snap judgment in such a case, and few would condemn you for not approaching matters like a careful rationalist who views monsters as very extraordinary, and hallucinations as mundane.

    2. Is it logical for you to believe in the monster while you’re seeing it? Well, no. As above, monsters would be quite extraordinary, while hallucinations are common. Even I’ve hallucinated while feverish as a child. Something can be reasonable under the circumstances, but still illogical.

    3. Is it reasonable to believe in the monster after the experience is over and you’ve had time to reflect? Well, no. No its not. I’m genuinely unclear how it could be, and the opening post doesn’t give any reason why it should. At this stage what is logical and what is reasonable should be more in accord with one another. The justifications for irrational beliefs have gone with the immediacy of the decision.

    4. Is it reasonable to feel fear of the monster even after its gone? Sure. Even if you believe the monster is a hallucination, feeling fear of the experience of seeing the monster is plausible. It feels quite real! That makes it scary even if you know that it isn’t true.

    What I think this post is really doing is eliding like crazy on the meaning of “reasonable.” The sense in which it is “reasonable” to believe that your lost child is waiting for you in heaven when the alternative is accepting a permanent loss of a loved one is different from the sense in which it is “reasonable” to apply logic and reason and conclude that there’s no good reason to believe that heaven exists. The latter “reasonable” is about logic and reason, while the former “reasonable” is more about whether something is understandable or forgivable even though its in error and based on little “reason” at all.

  88. Guys – Can I just say before anybody else comments at length that I’m not making any promises to respond substantively.

    You’re more than welcome to offer your criticisms, of course, and I’m sure they’ll be well put, etc., but this post is nearly a week old now, and I’ve moved on to new things (well back to old things, more accurately).

    And, of course, I entirely understand that many of you will think that I’m backing out because I can’t defend my thesis. :)

  89. Where is the OBJECTIVE, physical evidence?
    Of a monster, or anything else?

    In the case of religious belief…
    Does “god” exist in this universe?
    If he/she/it/they does, then why cannot they be detected?
    Provide answers, that will stand up in court, or better still, the laboratory.
    In the meantime, there is no case for religious belief.

  90. I think it’s possible you’re missing the point, Greg.

  91. Jeremy, I don’t see conservatism as the only force for authoritarianism, intolerance and violence. Quite the contrary. But, judging from your recent comments it seems you’ve had enough of this discussion, so thanks for indulging me and thanks for the tip re Roy Wallis. I will search out his work. :)

  92. It was a pleasure chatting with you, Emily.

  93. No
    That is the whole point.
    It’s why I’m an atheist.
    And I am aware of the difference between absence of evidence and evidence of absence.

    However, if you throw out objective observation and experiment and testing, you are left with mysticism, with no basis, other than [insert name of appropriate religion here] bullshit.
    Which, of course, contradicts all the OTHER forms of religious bullshit.
    Only ONE set of which, at a maximum, can be true.

    IF any religious believers claim of “truth” is veridical, then why have they not been verified?

    Religious belief may APPEAR to be reasonable – UNTIL it runs up against reality.

    Oops.

  94. Again Greg, you’re missing the point. All you’re doing here is shouting: “It’s bollox, there’s no evidence there’s God, therefore belief is unreasonable”.

    But the force of this thought experiment is that belief can be reasonable *even when* there’s no epistemic warrant.

    You need to show where the thought experiment goes wrong. So in the style of Eric and Patrick (even though neither of their responses is particularly convincing).

  95. Josh

    Some people have beliefs which turn out to be delusions and also beliefs which turn out to be true.

    Can you help me to identify one from the other ?

    I have had beliefs which turned out to be false. How can I tell the difference ?

    Say I believe in god

    How can I tell the difference between believing in god and believing in something which isn’t real ?
    (especially if I’m using the same logic, thoughts, emotions and physical reactions to justify both beliefs and both beliefs seem equally as real as each other).
    How can I tell them apart ?
    Can you give me a sure fire way of separating the two ?
    How do you do it ?
    What process do you go through to decide which beliefs you have are real and which are false. If you explain the process to me then I can follow it so that I can end up being as sure as you are that god exists ?
    I would like that very much.
    I hope you can help.

  96. Eric MacDonald

    Yes, I did enter the discussion late, so I understand why you want to go on to other things.

    However, in response to your question about religious experience. I find this hard to deal with. I suppose that I thought or believed I had had religious experiences, but when I became a priest and heard what other people said about their experiences, I realised that there wasn’t anything definite about these experiences at all – precisely the point that I was making above. (If you read David Hay’s book Something There, I think you’ll get the idea.)

    In fact, you might say that William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience cured me of talking about religious experience at all. While James makes an attempt at classification of religious experiences – the religion of healthy mindedness, etc. – the truth seems to be that a lot of people have experiences of various kinds that they understand in the context of religious belief and practice, and so they are called religious experiences. But it is really hard to say what is religious about them. In fact, if you consider Buddhism, the experiences are not religious in the normal Western acceptation of that word. They could just as well be described as the result of particular types of mental exercises, quite natural occurrences, though I find it difficult to think of them otherwise than as the sequellae of letting the mind idle, as a kind of waking dreaming.

    So, as an Anglican priest – which I still am, officially – and a canon, no less! – I rather like the cachet of ‘atheist priest’ – I stopped talking about religious experiences. I would mention them sometimes in a very general way, but they never seemed relevant to what I was doing as a religious officer.

    As I say, I think religious experience suffers from the same identity problems as god. We identify religious experience by the religious context, and the religious context by beliefs about god, and then we perform acts that are thought to be appropriate responses to the context of relationship between god and “his” people so understood, acts which in turn reinforce our beliefs and experiences – since religious acts are conducive to the experiences or at least provide a context for them, which tends in turn to further bolster our beliefs and precipitate experiences. The whole thing is very incestuous.

    I hope that goes some way towards answering your question.

  97. WTP

    Scientists have an objective way of figuring out what in the physical universe is the case and what is not.
    Even if they start their inquiry from a hunch and spend their entire lives not discovering anything. The process is sound – which is why we cure diseases and build rocket ships to the moon. Also the process is continually being tweaked and improved upon as we advance in knowledge.
    To act logically as if god exists is fine so long as you are prepared to accept that (A)you might be wrong and (B)there is no way of knowing if you are right or wrong (unlike in science).
    Unless there is a way of knowing and you are just not telling me.
    A Christian believes one thing a Muslim another.
    What’s the way to decide amongst the two ?
    Reading both holy books won’t help me decide.
    Acting logically according to my gut instinct isn’t any guarantee. I’ve acted logically according to my gut instinct before and been wrong.

    This is the most important thing you could ever do for me.

    If you tell me then I can use this way of deciding truth from falsehood to prevent myself from going straight to hell and I can look forward to an eternity of bliss in heaven.

    Please don’t let me down ! !

  98. @Eric – Thanks that is interesting. Basically you’re arguing that there are no unfiltered “religious” experiences.

    And, of course, I understand the about their being natural experiences (though the counterargument obviously is one should expect God to work through the natural mechanisms of the brain: if I remember right, Stannard actually made this argument when I suggested that his experience of God during prayer was just a matter of brain functioning, etc).

    Thanks again!

  99. Eitan,
    “The process is sound – which is why we cure diseases and build rocket ships to the moon.” Of course, sometimes our “cures” turn out to be nothing but quackery and our rocket ships to even low earth orbit continue to blow up on the launch pad. Life isn’t perfect and neither is science. Ever been in the room when a couple of “scientists” disagree about something extremely important to them? Witness the whole global warming debate. So much that can’t possibly be known and yet many “scientists” on both sides of the issue are very certain of their positions.

    And again, going back to my example about the physicist and GUT…he lived his life never proving what he believed. Yet, he could still be proven correct.

    As for your mortal/immortal soul, that’s your problem. In spite of the sarcasm I read in your post, I will offer this advice. Life is about making choices. I notice a good number of people here who call themselves “philosophers” seem to recoil at the fear of being wrong. You say you were “wrong” in the past. Consider it a failed experiment, learn from it, and move on to something else. From a scientific perspective, I see nothing wrong with being wrong unless you fail to learn from it and move on. Why give a crap what some clueless charlatain philosophers (religious leaders) tell you about heaven and hell. They have no more bearing on the existence of God than cold fusion has on nuclear physics. Or don’t. Stay on the porch and don’t bark. But if you’re not interested, surely you can respect that others see things differently. If all answers were reduceable to simple yes/no questions life wouldn’t be very interesting. Which brings me to something I meant to raise earlier. Have you ever looked deeply into the basics of logic, specifically the meaning of “one” and “zero”? Interesting stuff once you get past the “well, obviously…” part.

  100. Eric MacDonald

    @Jeremy

    My claim goes rather farther than that there are no unfiltered religious experiences. It may be right that we should expect god (supposing there is one) to work through natural processes – natural brain processes, for example, or, in the ‘creation’ of life, the natural process of evolution. But one would have expected something that could be individuated as an experience of god. What I found is that they are all over the map. The only thing that would give them cohesion is if they could be tied, somehow, to the existence of the being they were supposed to be experiences of. However, in the incestuous way that these things have of feeding into each other, the being itself was being thought of in some sense as the precipitate of these experiences, and as somehow confirmed by them. But when you are faced, close up, with the sheer diversity of experiences, this seems less and less plausible.

    You may well wonder, then, why I continued to function as a priest. Well, the truth is that I only did so as an acknowledged liberal, or radical. Everyone knew, because I made no secret of it, that ‘god’, for me, was a wholly naturalistic expression, and referred primarily to the whole idea of human flourishing. That seemed to work until it seemed plain that the church, whatever I might think, kept using the word ‘god’ in a referring way, and deduced a morality from its belief that this god had revealed ‘his’ will to ‘his’ people. When this cut rather close to home, as, to cite but one example, in the way that the church’s morality condemned both my wife Elizabeth (for ending her life) and me (for being there, and affirming, by my presence, the rightness of what Elizabeth did in bringing her increasingly intolerable life to a close), I realised that god language could no longer be used as a code for any idea of human flourishing. I haven’t stepped through the doors of a church since.

    I am not familiar with Russell Stannard’s work. My education seems to be lacking.

  101. @Eric

    I was briefly friends with a fella who was an Anglican vicar in England.

    He did not believe in the existence of God at all, but he believed in what he saw as the teachings of Christ (I think he used to talk about Jesus being the “objective correlate” of the idea of human perfection or something – can’t remember).

    Anyway, I asked him what his flock thought about all this. His response was:

    “Good God, I wouldn’t tell them!” :)

    Russell Stannard – Well it’s not sophisticated theology by any means. But he’s interesting because he’s a really, really good physicist who is also a believer.

  102. Eric MacDonald

    @Jeremy

    Russell Stannard – Well it’s not sophisticated theology by any means. But he’s interesting because he’s a really, really good physicist who is also a believer.

    I guess my question is: Why does that make him interesting? Does being a physicist make him particularly apt at the project of believing? Does being a physicist provide evidential support for his religious belief? How does he make that connexion? You say that it’s not sophisticated theology, by any means. Well, if it’s not, then I find it difficult to see why his believing should be any more interesting than the pope’s believing (supposing that he does, of course – which cannot be taken for granted: Mother Theresa didn’t).

    But if his believing is based on something like your monster thought experiment, something that he just can’t believe is not real, then that’s pretty weak in the knees, isn’t it? I mean, I know someone who believes he is the reincarnation of Jesus’ twin brother, and he can’t believe that this is not real, and that the person who channelled this to him was not telling the truth, and that in an NDE he remembers speaking with Jesus and others, but it still doesn’t seem to me he’s got enough to go on. Interesting in a quirky sort of way, but not interesting in an epistemic way, so that you feel he’s added something to the conversation.

    I find the story of the vicar troubling. Like the disbelieving clergy that Dennett and LaScola report about in their paper, Preachers Who Are Not Believers, he lacks integrity. (I can understand the reasons for it, but they don’t stand up, I’m afraid.) Some bishops take exception to radical forms of belief, – some bishops are themselves radical – but radical belief in the Church of England is not exactly rare. Your acquaintance should be more honest. I suspect he would find that more people would agree with him than not, and the few who don’t will be replaced by people who do. Of course, there’s always the argument that it would be a terrible thing to undermine Mrs. So-and-so’s deep faith, or Mr. Whodyamacallit’s last refuge from the storm, but, in my experience, they won’t pay any attention, and those who do will want to hear what you have to say. (I speak from some experience on this point.)

  103. @Eric – Well it’s interesting precisely for the kinds of reasons that the anti-accommodationists bang on about. Stannard is trying to make science and religion compatible with each other (that’s what his God Experiment book is about).

    I interviewed him once. Here is it:

    http://www.philosophersnet.com/magazine/article.php?id=7

    We’ll gloss over the fact that I’m probably arguing against my own monster thought experiment while interviewing Stannard! :)

    Hmmmm. Not convinced that my friend should have spoken up. That might not have gone down too well in leafy Surrey!

    (If you ever got to see the BBC programmes A Seaside Parish and even An Island Parish, you’ll remember that non-comformity doesn’t always go down too well.)

    Edit: Actually I should say that I don’t find Stannard’s arguments particularly interesting (though I find what he says interesting).

    I find the psychology (and ontology) of belief interesting; and in this case the fact that he isn’t attempting to reduce any cognitive dissonance he might experience by holding the domains of science and religion apart (as I suspect a lot of religious working scientists will be doing), but rather he’s attempting to bring them together (though, as it turns out, in a fairly half-hearted manner, I think).

  104. Eitan:

    Evolution is self-correcting and so is faith. Evolution needed the big bang and faith needs a first step. Martin Luther King said “you don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” It’s only through the transmutation (tranfiguration) that occurs through the renewal of our minds that we can start to fathom these things. As Aquinas asserts, faith is not a way of knowing that leads to believing, but a way of believing that leads to knowing. Empirical philosophy is trying to put the cart before the horse and then whipping the poor equestrian!

    Look, your conception of God is wrong, as are all of ours (courtesy of our finite minds). Although there’s proof that babies and animals have very different frames of consciousness than we do, any ENCULTURATED conceptions of God present in adult rationality are almost certainly flawed from genesis (as in both from the beginning AND also cos of Genesis the book). As usual, the finite symbols of language that we paint our rational consciousness pictures in are too dualistic to accurately speak of esoteric principles. The word “truth”, for instance, has been hijacked by empiricists and applied to a very narrow range of observable phenomena. This wasn’t the only conception of truth that philosophers originally pondered over. Truth is also a way. Its what is meant to be and, beyond human distortion, IS (ie. truth). Scripture says “test the Spirits [cos many can seem wise but aren’t] and that “a tree is judged by its fruit”. So you KNOW that you’re experiencing God when the ongoing encounter produces the following:love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance. It may sound cliched but these “fruits of the Spirit” are profound and empirically verifiable (at least psychologically) frames of mind. Seek and you’ll find bruv. It’s philosophers’ prerogative to conduct these kind of mental/spiritual/abstract experiments. You can’t see it as testing GOD (remember He’s not a fan of that). But test the power of prayer and the application opportunities that it produces (by following the inner promptings when the situations arise), and then check for increases in these Spiritual fruits in your life. And walla, you’ve found God. (For yourself at least, it’s a secondary concern to try and prove it to the empirically-obsessed who’s hearts are hardened.)

  105. Eric MacDonald

    Ah, now, that’s more like it! Absolutely demolishes your argument about the experience of monsters! I like it very much. But when you do consider Stannard’s ‘arguments’ – are they really arguments, or just a determination to believe despite everything? – you see how very little ground he has to stand on.

    In fact, he makes it very clear that science and faith are really in different categories. Science is about evidence – although he even trips up there! – and faith is about … what, exactly?

    When, at the end, when he says that only the afterlife can make sense of belief in a loving god, and yet we have no evidence for it – in Kant’s terms, I suppose, it’s a postulate of practical reason – it seems fairly clear that he has stepped outside the sphere of evidence altogether. Of course, he made that clear early on when he said of religious experience that it doesn’t provide evidence:

    ‘Yes,’ admits Stannard, ‘it does take you out of the public domain, where you can say – here is an experiment, you’re looking at it, I’m looking at it, and we can agree on the evidence. This is crucial for the physical sciences, but I have never made the claim that theology is like the physical sciences. However, if you’re thinking in terms of say, psychology, and both Freud and Jung, regarded psychology as a science…’

    But he should have noted that not many psychologists think of Freudian or Jungian psychology as sciences. What this shows, though, is that in Stannard’s terms science and religion are really incompatible; he just doesn’t mind the dissonance. After all, he thinks that you make a category mistake if you think of god as an existent. God is, in Tillich’s words, the Ground of Being, but I’ve never been able to understand what this can possibly mean. If it is another category, then it is something of which we can have no experience, or at least confirmable experience, and all his talk of prayer life just bounces back. It is, doubtless an experience, but not, in any conceiveable sense, an experience of something. How does this differ from fairy tales, or from your hallucination of a monster? Have we reached an ontology of religious believing here? I don’t think so.

    As to leafy Surrey, well, I suppose that, if rural Nova Scotia can take a fairly big dose of Don Cupitt and me, even leafy Surrey might manage the same in small measures. It doesn’t give the vicar the right to hide what he knows – and it is, nowadays, what he knows, from biblical scholarship, comparative religion, history, philosophy, etc. – from the people he is supposed to care about. And even if he has ceased believing, that doesn’t give him the right not to care.

  106. Absolutely demolishes your argument about the experience of monsters!

    Nope! It really doesn’t. Stannard’s argument is that experience is a proper datum for science. That’s what I’m disputing. But my argument about monsters has nothing to do with that claim. Though I ought to add that I haven’t read the Stannard interview for years, so I can’t quite remember what I was arguing. :)

    The rest of it – yup. What was so curious about the interview is that although officially the idea was that Stannard thought it was possible to bring religion and science together. One got the impression that actually he didn’t really think that.

    I got the impression that his “experience” of God in prayer really was the key thing. But he can’t really have thought that was something that science might take into account (he pretty much admitted it was unfalsifiable, if I remember right).

    It’s not as simple as you suppose with my vicar friend. There’s biographical stuff. (Think between the lines here!).

  107. Gedankenexperiments are all very well – until they are really tested, by physical experiment.
    Otherwise they are just handwaving.

    Sorry, but I think it is you who has not got the point.

  108. Ah well, maybe you’re right Greg.

  109. So the argument is that if an experience seems to have a veridical quality, and if belief in its truth is a matter of pressing and utmost personal significance, then it is reasonable to believe in its truth.

    The problem is in your usage of the word “reasonable”. The mere fact that you have reasons to believe something doesn’t make it reasonable. They actually have to be good reasons. In all the examples you give, the reasons to believe something are emotional, not rational. So while it may be understandable that people have these beliefs, it is not reasonable.

  110. Deen

    That’s just not true. There are both emotional and rational (evidential) components to the belief. See my post March 20, 6.49pm.

    Also, even if you were right that all this is entirely emotional, your argument is question begging (because in effect you’re saying that belief is only reasonable if it is epistemically warranted, which is precisely what I’m denying).

    You guys are funny! ;)

  111. The fact that there are also rational (evidential) components is barely relevant. As has already been pointed out, the experience itself allows for many other possible explanations. No, in your argument you yourself have made the emotional component the deciding factor for accepting a belief.

    I’m not begging the question. Basing your beliefs on your own personal needs is called “wishful thinking”. That’s not what most people would call “reasonable”.

    I am still wondering what definition you use for “reasonable”. I have yet to find a dictionary that doesn’t link the word to logical or rational decision-making.

  112. Mr S. said:
    “But the schema I had in mind was that the belief:

    1. Is not contrary to logic.

    2. Is supported by veridical experience.

    3. Is of pressing and utmost personal significance.

    Some of that is to do with reason (Part 1 and aspects of Part 3, presumably). Some of it is to do with evidence (Part 2). And some of it is to do with motivation (Part 3).”

    1. Unfortunately, even “not contrary to logic” doesn’t always work.
    QM, as verified by innumerable experimental tests, is contrary to apparent, everyday logic.
    I happen to think there is an underlying order, expressed by hidden mathematical variables we do not yet have a handle on. And this opinion is at least partially supported by versions of the double-slit experiment, where individual photons are fired, one at a time, over an extended period (say minimum-time-between-photon-emissions to be at least ONE second ….) and produce most interesting results, as yet unexplained (AFAIK).

    2. Is supported by veridical evidence.
    Nice supposition.
    NO religious case, of this sort has EVER surfaced. If it had the world would be very different.
    And this is where your argument is hollow, void and null.
    Let us suppose that a god-like entity is wholly or partially present in this universe.
    Then he/she/it/they should be detectable.
    De nada/zilch/null/not-even-zero, but empty.
    As our detection equipment gets wider/deeper/more sensitive (etc) one would expect any evidence of such a being to show. Whereas, the opposite is the case.
    We can detect down to individual molecules, and sub-atomic particles, such as the electron and the neutrino, all the way up to superclusters of galaxies, at distances and time of such magnitudes that you have to use orders of Magnitude up to at least 10^9 years, 13*10^9 ly, and size-ranges from 10^(-15) up to 10^25 metres.
    No god anywhere.
    So, unless, and until some evidence DOES appear, that one is pining for the fjords, shall we say?

    3. So is desperately needing to get to the toilet!

  113. Hang on a minute, you can’t say it’s all emotional, and then when I point out it isn’t, say “Ah well, that’s not relevant!”.

    And no, I haven’t made the emotional component the deciding factor, not least because there is no single deciding factor. There are three necessary, but not sufficient, conditions (two of which involve a rational/logical element, and one of which involves an evidential element).

    And sorry, but appeals to a dictionary in an argument just ain’t going to do it, and certainly not when it involves denying what you’ve just conceded – and which is the case – which is that there *are* logical and rational components in this process.

    As far as the definition of “reasonable” is concerned, the monster story precisely functions as an “intuition pump” to show that we might think something is “reasonable” in the absence of epistemic warrant.

    Look, I get that people think this thought experiment doesn’t work. You’ll appreciate that I was always perfectly aware that this was going to be the case. But you’re going to have to do better than this if you want me to respond again. Say something I find interesting, or surprising, and I (might) engage with you. Otherwise, this post is more than a week old now, so…

    Sorry, that last bit sounds more snippy than I intend. What I mean is that I can’t justify spending too much more time on this, so you’ll have to come up with something good if you want me to respond.

  114. Greg – We’ve already established that I’m missing the point, so you’ll appreciate that I won’t be responding to all that. Don’t want to run the risk of the same thing happening again, do we!?

  115. I can see three major problems with this case:
    -You’re claiming that religious beliefs are “reasonable” given that they’re based on a certain type of experience, but it’s not clear what you mean by “reasonable.” That word is quite open to interpretation, so it’s not really clear how much epistemic warrant you actually think these experiences can provide.
    -You’re taking a naive view of what constitutes justified belief. The gold standard in disciplines that try to establish epistemic justification for beliefs about the physical world (science, history) is mutually consistent independent sources of evidence. If I saw the monster, I may be justified in calling 911. But if the police and animal control show up and there’s no evidence of a break in, is it still reasonable to believe in the monster?
    -In the case of the monster, we’re talking about something REAL, as in breaking into my house, breathing in my face real. There are definite questions I can ask and definite pieces of physical evidence that would either confirm or deny the presence of such a beast. Most importantly, these evidences submit themselves to multiple independent confirmation, as discussed in the last point. When it comes to religious belief, the situation is different; there is usually no way to confirm the truth of a religious experience, certainly not through mutually consistent independent sources. In other words, you elide the difference between beliefs about things happening within the realm of sensory perceptions and beliefs about metaphysics — a distinction that I think is quite important in this discussion.

    This last one, I think, is very important. If I can in principle try to confirm or disconfirm my belief by observation and consultation with other observers, isn’t it incumbent upon me to try? If I hear a ringing in my ear, am I warranted in believing it’s a real “sound” (as in real mechanical waves transmitted through air, as opposed to an auditory hallucination) before asking anyone else whether they hear it? In contrast, if there is no way in principle to confirm or disconfirm the content of my experience (or if, as in many cases with religion, I simply refuse to believe the arguments for the disconfirmation of the reality of the experience), can I really be justified in saying it’s true in any sense but “true for me”?

    I think your thought experiment is really an argument for skepticism. Since it ignores the important differences between beliefs about the physical world and beliefs about pure metaphysics, I don’t really believe it can be an argument for the rationality of religious belief. In the case of beliefs about the physical world, it points out that we may not be able to trust our own perceptions, highlighting the need for justified belief to be driven by mutual confirmation by independent sources. That is, while I may be justified in REACTING to the monster as if it is real, I’m not really justified in believing it’s real unless there’s enough evidence to be compelling to people in a more lucid state of mind.

  116. Dan – Very quickly.

    1. I keep saying that I don’t think the belief is epistemically warranted (though I don’t think it’s without epistemic warrant).

    2. Yes, but I am quite explicitly not talking about epistemic justification (that should be absolutely clear – e.g., “Clearly belief in the monster isn’t epistemically warranted: the perilousness of a situation is not part of that story” – my whole point is that a belief can be reasonable when it isn’t epistemically justified (though again, I’m not saying there’s no epistemic justification);

    3. I think your point here is more interesting. There is an issue about what would make on-going belief in God – and the monster – reasonable.

    You said:

    if there is no way in principle to confirm or disconfirm the content of my experience (or if, as in many cases with religion, I simply refuse to believe the arguments for the disconfirmation of the reality of the experience), can I really be justified in saying it’s true in any sense

    Well: 1. It can be reasonable to believe it’s true – for the reasons stated (I tried to stay clear of using words like “justified” – and I think I was more or less successful – because I didn’t want to suggest epistemic warrant); 2. Remember, my argument isn’t an argument for the existence of God. It’s an argument about the reasonableness of religious belief. (See Don Bird’s comment above about Moore’s paradox, by the way.)

  117. The issue of the definition of “reasonable” keeps coming up. I guess my view is that “reasonable” is a vague concept. But let’s suppose we just take it to mean: “not contrary to reason”.

    So, in this case, my claim is that belief in the monster is “not contrary to reason”:

    1. Because it is not ruled out by logic;

    2. Because the experience seems self-evidently true (i.e., it is veridical);

    3. Because the issue of belief is of pressing and utmost significance;

    The counterargument you guys are trying to make is that belief is only reasonable if it is justified by evidence, falsifiability, etc;

    My response is that while it is true that the belief in the monster is not epistemically warranted (for the reasons that you guys identify), it remains reasonable (in the sense of not being contrary to reason), because points 2 and 3 abrogate epistemic warrant as sole criterion of reasonableness.

    This is likely the last thing I’m going to say on the matter because this has already been absurdly time consuming.

    Feel free to take your best shots, of course (though I will just delete anything that is not respectful – because I’m the only person here allowed to be disrespectful). And I’m quite happy for you to think that my silence is an indication that I’m stuck for an argument. I’m just that kind of guy. ;)

    It’s been fun, but I have monsters to fight, gods to pray to, and free will to believe in (<– see what I just did there!).

  118. OK
    So what point(s) are you trying to make?
    Dan L. seems to be saying something very similar to me.

    What is the basis for believeing in the real existence of god/the monster?
    Where is the same basis justified – what evidence can/could be produced to adduce support for the claim of the monster’s existence?
    Other than voices in the head, that is?

    “The reasonableness of religious belief” – erm – based on WHAT/where/which/when/whose reason and evidence.
    Come on, you are going round in ever-decreasing circles, and rapidly coming to resemble the dreaded ouzlem-bird!

    Religious beleif has to be based on SOMETHING.

    It might be the collection of much-altered Bronze-Age goatherder’s myths, originally comcieved when there was nothing in the way of science or engineering (though there was in Egypt and Mesopotamia, there wasn’t a lot in 4thC BC Judaea) as a convenient bedtime story for the children.
    It might be based on similar collection of Dark Ages camelherders’ myths put together by a probably illiterate charismatic leader, with a taste for child rape, pr it might be a collection of 19thC economists’ myths.
    Yes, they are a BASIS, they originated somewhere, with someone, but they have no more foundation in reality then Mills and Boon’s fiction output, or politicians pre-election promises!

  119. Too late, Greg – you blew your chance of a serious conversation with your attitude earlier on.

    I’ve gone. This is the ghost of Jerry posting here.

  120. Jeremy,

    I realize you may not check back in, but here are my thoughts on your reply:

    “So, in this case, my claim is that belief in the monster is “not contrary to reason”:

    1. Because it is not ruled out by logic;

    2. Because the experience seems self-evidently true (i.e., it is veridical);

    3. Because the issue of belief is of pressing and utmost significance;”

    My criticism would be that you’ve simply pushed the semantic burden from “reasonable” to “true” and “belief.” I think that in situations like this, we have to be very clear about the mode of belief and the mode of truth:
    -There is the perception of the monster. The perception is not a belief; furthermore, the belief that the monster is perceived cannot really be doubted. Beliefs about one’s perceptions do not submit to evaluation of truth value the way truths about material correlates of those perceptions do.
    -There is the belief that what was perceived was a monster. This is the latter sort of belief, a belief about the correlation between perception and the physical world. When I use the word “belief,” I am usually speaking about this category.
    -There are metaphysical beliefs that are informed through empirical discoveries, but cannot be epistemically grounded in those discoveries. Seventeenth century mechanism would be one such metaphysic, as would Liebnizian monism and modern quantum theory. While we cannot be sure, for example, that reality is composed at the finest grains of matter/energy waves or wave functions, such a view is at least consistent with all known empirical results, and can be justified on the basis that it is “good enough.”

    In your thought experiment, I think you are conflating belief that one perceives a monster with belief that the monster is physically real. Reacting immediately to the perception of a monster is reasonable, but I don’t see that it follows that believing in the monster is reasonable. The perception is self-evidently real, but it does not follow that there is a physical correlate to that perception. Especially since experiment and experience suggest that there is either often or always a severe disconnect between perception and reality.

    Thus, I don’t think what you talk about constitutes a “belief” except in the weakest possible sense, a sense in which I personally would shy away from the word “belief.” Indeed, when you say that the experience “seems self-evidently true,” this means nothing to me except that I cannot doubt the content of my perceptions as I experience them, which I would not try to deny. I would say that “belief” only comes in when I try to find a way to verify that the perception actually has a material correlate.

    The thought experiment deals with the boundary between perception and physical correlates of those perceptions. However, I think the question of justification of religious belief lies on the boundary between metaphysical beliefs and beliefs about physical correlates of perceptions — our metaphysical beliefs provide a basis for interpreting our perceptions as the result of the interactions of metaphysical principles. Obviously, perceptions must be brought in somewhere in the evaluations of our metaphysics and our beliefs about the world based on those metaphysics. But perceptions are always indirect evidence of the truth or falsehood of those two types of beliefs. The only belief they can justify directly is the belief that the perception was experienced, which was never in doubt.

    As far as number 3 goes, I would say that it is natural, though possibly not always reasonable, to react to perceptions as if they are real. Presumably, this is exactly what animals do, not necessarily having access to the sorts of concepts and practices human beings have to sort through which perceptions have physical correlates and which don’t. But then, animals aren’t worried about that sort of thing, they’re just worried about survival and reproduction, for which reacting to one’s perceptions as if they are real in a material sense is probably a good idea.

    Which is another criticism of the thought experiment: you propose a scenario in which the stakes are perceived to be immediately high. In the case of belief in God, there is no immediate risk to life or limb, and so it is hard to say whether it is reasonable to respond to a transcendent experience with as little skepticism as one might respond to the perception of a monster.

  121. Thanks Dan. I will respond, because this *is* interesting. I think you’re wrong, and I think I can explain why, but I’m just doing other things.

    Later! :)

  122. Attitude?

    That physical evidence is the only practical one that counts?

    I really do not understand what you are trying to achieve or drive at.
    Otherwise I would not be re-posting.

    You talk about “reason” and some sort of evidence, and then, to me at least, seem to immediately run away from said evidence.
    Or am I missing something that is so obvious, and large and up-close that I can’t see it, or can only see part of it?
    ( The wood for the trees, in fact.)

  123. Greg – What can I tell you? Other people seem to be addressing the thought experiment (Patrick, Eric, Dan, Don, etc), but you seem to be content to state over and over again that there is no evidence for the existence of God.

    But the argument doesn’t depend on their being evidence in the way you seem to think is required. So you telling me that there isn’t any of that kind of evidence doesn’t get us anywhere.

    It’s possible that you’re just not used to the way that thought experiments work… (I don’t mean that in a condescending way).

    The argument might be wrong, but to show it is you have to attack it at fairly specific points. So, for example, you could argue that belief in the monster (in the situation I describe) is not analogous to belief in God (see Dan’s last paragraph in his post above). Or you could argue that it is not reasonable to believe in the physical existence of the monster even when you’re up close and personal with him in the bathroom (that’s the thrust of Dan’s latest post). Or you could argue that the sorts of experiences that people have of God do not suggest veridicality or even that it’s reasonable to conclude they’re talking about the same thing (that’s pretty much Eric’s position, I think).

    But what you can’t do is to keep saying – “But there isn’t any evidence for God”. (Though, of course, that claim can be part one of the strategies above – Dan’s, for example).

  124. Okay, Dan. So first – the points on which we agree.

    1. Belief that one is perceiving the monster can’t be doubted;

    2. Belief in the physical monster is a different thing;

    You think I’m conflating 1 and 2. I think I’m not. Here’s why.

    The thought experiment deliberately prizes these two things apart. So there’s the whole part at the beginning where the fella has the monster for company, but proceeds on the basis that there is no physical correlate (so it’s the John Forbes Nash thing).

    The force of the bathroom incident is that it shows that 2 can be “reasonable” in certain circumstances. You’ll notice that even here I’ve kept the two types of thing separate in the thought experiment – that’s the point of the “What if it’s real?” thing. There’s no conflation here. But there is an intuition pump. And what it’s supposed to show is that part 3 of my justification (“the issue of belief [in your second sense] is of pressing and utmost signficance”) can make 2 reasonable when before only 1 was reasonable.

    The thing is I don’t think you’ve actually addressed that point at all (other than to assert it isn’t reasonable). You simply state that “reacting to the perception is reasonble”, but believing it is real is not (we’ll gloss over whether that makes psychological sense). Okay, so supposing I tweak the thought experiment. This time it is the nature of human beings that they cannot react to the perception of danger unless they believe that the danger is instantiated in a physical reality.

    In this situation, is it “reasonable” for the fella to believe in the monster (if it is then it shows that epistemic warrant is not a necessary condition of reasonable belief). Too right it is… You say that the perception is real, but it does not follow there’s a physical correlate to that perception. Well, of course, it doesn’t follow (how could it given the possibility of hallucination, etc). Our fella is well aware of this point (he is a good sceptic, after all). But the point is that it also doesn’t follow that something doesn’t exist simply because there is no epistemic warrant to support a belief in its existence. And this, of course, is crucial. Our fella believes because his experience is verdical, the monster is not ruled out by logic, and the belief is of pressing and utmost personal sigificance (he cannot take evasive action unless he believes). This is reasonable – i.e., not contrary to reason.

    I think that’s a solid argument (though I guess ultimately people might just have different intuitions about what’s reasonable in that situation).

    Your other stuff about whether this is analogous to the case of religious belief. Sure there are issues there.

    p.s., I can’t believe how much time I’ve spent on this! Madness! :)

  125. Well, there isn’t any evidence for the existence of the monster – is there?

    My training, as you might guess is in Physics, which is why I used the original name for a thought experiment.
    But thought experiments have only partial validity.

    They can only, eventually, be tested as real experiments, usually when experimental techniques and instrumentation improve.
    Hence the old thought-experiment of what happens when you fire a single photon at a double-slit is no longer valid, because it has been turned into a real experiment.
    With real, embarassing results, as yet not interpreted or understood properly (or so I understand).

    If you are talking about (your phrase from the original post) the “truth of the experience” felt by the original monster-sufferer/religious believer then that beleif can be tested, both by enquiry of the witness, and by external measurement.
    However, what happens when someone insists that they had an expereience, but there is NO external other evidence?
    People with these experiences are usually termed deluded (at least) unless they are religious believers in which case it is different.
    Except I can’t see why this should be so.

    And, of course there are cases where there are no physical correlates to individual persons’ perceptions of things.
    These cases are well-documented, and so far, every time, and in all circumstances (AFAIK) it has been shown that the person(s) percetions have been altered in some way:
    Under the influence of drugs, under the influence of physical malfunctions in the body and/or the brain causing false perceptions of things which ain’t there, under the influence of lack of nutrition, causing other physical symptoms, including hallucinations.
    None of which have any physical reality, other than the physical mal-ordering of their physical brain-functions, giving ride to spurious messages to their sensoria.

    OF COURSE things exist that we have not yet detected, and we can hypothesise about those things (like “dark energy” for instance).
    But observation, detection, hypothesising, experiment, all in a constant feedback-and-interplay are our vital measure/tools/methods for both belief and non-belief in what we are experiencing.

    Referring to your post above dated 13.24:25/03/2010
    Someone percieves the monster.
    Yet no-one else can see any evidence at all for the monster, and there are no traces.
    By the first person’s lights, yes they are reasonable to believe in the monster.
    But, none of the rest of us have to, at all, nor is it reasonable for us to believe in the monster.
    And why should we?

  126. @Greg – I’ll try to get back to you on that later!

    I like this bit, though:

    By the first person’s lights, yes they are reasonable to believe in the monster.

    :)

  127. “The force of the bathroom incident is that it shows that 2 can be “reasonable” in certain circumstances. You’ll notice that even here I’ve kept the two types of thing separate in the thought experiment – that’s the point of the “What if it’s real?” thing. There’s no conflation here. But there is an intuition pump. And what it’s supposed to show is that part 3 of my justification (”the issue of belief [in your second sense] is of pressing and utmost signficance”) can make 2 reasonable when before only 1 was reasonable.”

    This only seems to carry weight if we make the assumption that something needs to be believed in my second sense before it can be taken to be of pressing and utmost significance. I do not believe that is the case. The perception of intense heat is not a belief, but and pulling one’s hand away from a hot stove is not based on any beliefs about hands or stones. Similarly, one could react to the perception of the monster as if it was real because it is the perception that is of pressing and utmost significance, whereas beliefs about those perceptions are only formed after the perceptions have been experienced.

    There’s a more subtle form of this objection, which is that I think we’re hand waving through a lot of what goes into and between perception and belief formation. My conjecture is that when one experiences an anomolous perception, one tries (without conscious effort) to incorporate it into the individual’s preexisting system of metaphysics and beliefs. Just as importantly, this system seems to shape the perception itself: I taste white wine where someone with more refined sensibilities would taste a Riesling; Galileo saw pendulums where prior investigators saw constrained fall; I see red, where a pirahan villager would see something that “looks like blood.”

    That is, there seems to me to be a murky area between perception and belief where one attempts to attach some significance to a perception by correlating it with one’s system of metaphysics and beliefs. Any of three things can happen:
    -The perception can be reconciled
    -The perception cannot be reconciled and the perception is regarded as an hallucination
    -The perception cannot be reconciled or regarded as an hallucination, and the individual must alter their preexisting beliefs to make sense of it

    I don’t think you’ve actually established that our victim is responding to a belief that the monster is real, as opposed to responding to a frightening and difficult-to-assimilate perception. In some sense, yes, because the individual must try to make sense of the perception in terms of what he already believes. But in trying to fully assimilate the perception (assuming he doesn’t already believe in monsters), he has to go about trying to determine whether his experience demands that he change his worldview to accommodate it, or whether there is some justification for dismissing the perception as an hallucination. It’s only after this process that I (personally) would say that the person has a belief regarding the physical reality of the monster.

    Basically, I think that the “pressing concern” applies to my belief(1), or possibly a belief(1.5), but not really to my belief(2).

    Of course, that is largely my own conjectures about the relationship between perception and belief, but I think that it at least demonstrates that there are possible models of belief that allow the gentleman to react as if he’d seen a monster without actually believing it.

    “The thing is I don’t think you’ve actually addressed that point at all (other than to assert it isn’t reasonable). You simply state that “reacting to the perception is reasonble”, but believing it is real is not (we’ll gloss over whether that makes psychological sense). ”

    No need to gloss. People get scared by horror movies. Reacting to a perception without believing in its external reality is not only reasonable, it’s pretty much unavoidable in some instances. This phenomenon is the very essence of stage magic.

    “Okay, so supposing I tweak the thought experiment. This time it is the nature of human beings that they cannot react to the perception of danger unless they believe that the danger is instantiated in a physical reality.”

    In that case, I refuse to play. Thought experiments can be good to get the intuition going, but you’re asking me to assume, for the sake of this one, that something is true that I know factually to be false. Furthermore, your position follows from this assumption. I don’t think the solution to the murkiness of the relationship between perception to belief is to make our model even more naive.

    Furthermore, our tendency to react to our perceptions as if they were real is, I would argue, a legacy of our history as biological organisms. Our perceptual systems are inherited from ancestors of a lower cognitive order, and developed as a system to aid survival and reproduction (well, I’m teleologizing the process, but you get the idea), not as a system for evaluating the truth value of beliefs. Given that, a reaction to a perception may be reasonable (in many cases, unavoidable) where a belief that the perception is “real” might not be. This is actually bigger than monsters. Humans reify complexes of perceptions into distinct entities even when there is no entity to be found. This is, I believe, the source of the Ship of Theseus paradox.

    Finally, and I’m not sure I’m well-versed enough in philosophical argument to really back this up, I believe that only propositions can have truth values. Thus, beliefs can only be true or false to the extent to which they can be stated within the vocabulary and grammar of some propositional system (formal logic, say). Perceptions, on the other hand, are not themselves propositions, and propositions about the content of perceptions can neither be confirmed nor falsified except by the perceiver, who we may suspect of fooling himself.

    “I had a vivid experience of being attacked by a monster last night,” cannot be falsified, and so I would say cannot be rightly called a belief.

    “A monster attacked me last night,” can, and therefore is a belief. Whether it is reasonable depends on whether the individual has done the due diligence in trying to determine whether it’s true (what constitutes due diligence is a whole ‘nuther can of worms).

    My thoughts on this are a little scattered as you might be able to tell, but I thank you for spending as much time as you have on this discussion. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about just this relationship between metaphysics, perception, and physical reality and this discussion has helped tease out some of the loose threads in those thoughts. I’m not really expecting a rebuttal since you have already spent so much time and energy on this, but feel free to email me if you would like to anyway.

    (Gosh, that was scattered! Sorry about that.)

  128. Good god, Dan! There’s a lot there! :)

    I knew you’d come up with the horror movie objection. I have a rebuttal ready to hand. :)

    I really can’t do this now, though.

    Tell you what, I’ll close down comments here for 24 hours or so. Then I’ll re-open them and get back to you. The temptation is to respond now. But, you know, it’s hugely time consuming, so I need to put the brakes on a bit.

  129. Second-guessing subjective experiences | Butterflies and Wheels - pingback on January 29, 2012 at 3:13 pm

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