Thursday, July 2, 2009

Authority Without Inerrancy, Part IV: The Argument from Human Hubris

In this next entry in my series on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, I want to look at the second main objection to the progressive Christian understanding of the Bible, an objection I’m calling the Argument from Human Hubris. In my first post in this series, I summarized the argument in the following way:

…if we accept the progressive view, human beings are free to decide for themselves whether a particular injunction in the Bible is God’s word or just an error on the part of some human author. And if that is the case—if not even the Bible is something in response to which we feel compelled to set our fallible human judgment aside—what follows is that our fallible judgment ends up deferring to nothing. We become the ultimate judge of truth, and there is no longer any meaningful sense in which God’s Word serves for us as an authority to which we must bow.

In the present post, I want to respond to this argument by showing that a doctrine of inerrancy does not avoid the problem that is attributed here to the progressive Christian view of the Bible. On the contrary, the problem can only be mitigated, and the progressive Christian view of the Bible does a better job of mitigating this problem than does a doctrine of inerrancy.
The Impossibility of Avoiding Human Judgment
In briefest terms, my response to the Argument from Human Hubris runs as follows: It is simply not possible to avoid fallible human judgment. Biblical inerrantists, after all, have made a judgment—a fallible human one. They have been presented with the question of what kind of text the Bible is, and how that text is related to the self-disclosure of God. And they have made a judgment with respect to that question—a judgment to the effect that the Doctrine of Plenary Verbal inspiration is true and, by implication, that the alternative views are false (including the progressive Christian view, spelled out in the last post of this series, as well as the atheistic view which treats the entire Bible as a human creation of very limited value, composed at a time when people were steeped in false superstitions).

What distinguishes the inerrantist’s view of the Bible from others is that, once inerrantists have made a judgment to the effect that their view is true, that judgment justifies setting all further human judgments aside in favor of deference to what the Bible says. As a matter of fact, I think that such deference is in principle impossible to carry out, because the nature of the text itself doesn’t lend itself to an inerrantist reading. As such, I believe that the inerrantist is forced into what is really just a pretense of deference.

This pretense masks a pattern of ongoing human judgments about the meaning of the Bible, a pattern whose aim is to wrestle the text (often through selective blindness or creative interpretation) into conformity with the prior human judgment that the text is inerrant (a judgment which entails that the text must, for example, be consistent even when it appears as if a later biblical writer is actually criticizing an earlier one). What this pretense does is hide, at every step, the fact that human judgment is going on. Since this human judgment is hidden, it becomes easier for inerrantists to deny that their beliefs are fallible. The result is a level of confidence in their beliefs that no products of merely human judgment deserve. Such false confidence is, of course, a kind of hubris.

While this is my picture of what is going on with inerrantism, I want to suppose for the sake of argument that inerrantists really can defer consistently to “what the Bible teaches” without smuggling in fallible human judgments left and right. Even if this is so (which I doubt), it will still be the case that inerrantists have made an initial human judgment about the Bible. They have judged the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, and this judgment is itself a fallible human one.

Inerrantists could try to avoid this conclusion by claiming that their belief in biblical inerrancy is really just the outcome of giving themselves over to the urgings of the Holy Spirit, and hence is not the result of a human judgment at all. But this doesn’t free inerrantists from the domain of human judgment. It only moves the judgment up one level. On what basis do they come to believe that their beliefs about the Bible arise from the Holy Spirit rather than from their own heads? Isn’t this a human judgment?

Suppose they possess an inner sense—an immediate feeling—of the Bible’s inerrancy. Isn’t the act of attributing this feeling to the work of the Holy Spirit (rather than, say, treating it as a byproduct of brainwashing at the hands of one’s religious community) a human judgment about its meaning? A fallible one? Perhaps, however, the inerrantist will say that what is immediately experienced, with the vividness of sense perception, is not the inerrancy of the Bible as such. What is immediately experienced in this way is something like the following: “The Holy Spirit is at work within me urging belief in inerrancy.” But either way—whether one has an immediate sense of the Bible’s inerrancy or an immediate sense of the Holy Spirit urging one to believe in the Bible’s inerrancy—there is a human judgment at work.

Here, we need to distinguish between immediate judgments—judgments we make just because they feel right—and mediated judgments that we reach on the basis of other judgments. Even if the judgment is an immediate one, it is still a human judgment. We trust sense perception in an immediate way—in the language I introduced in my second post of this series, our sensory beliefs are “basic.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a human judgment at work when I open the fridge and form the belief, on the basis of sense data, that there is only one beer left. What it means is that this is an immediate judgment.

And although sense perception is an inescapable authority in my life, it is fallible. There might, after all, be a second beer hiding behind the ketchup…or someone might have slipped me some hallucinogen shortly before I opened the fridge. This possibility of error doesn’t imply that I shouldn’t put any trust in my senses, and hence fall into radical skepticism. Nor does it imply that, in order to avoid radical skepticism, I should just pretend that my senses are infallible. What it implies, instead, is that while I should trust my senses simply because they feel as if they connect me with a reality beyond myself, I shouldn’t trust them without question. I should be conscious of the fallibility of my senses, and so be conscious of potential “defeaters” for my immediate sensory judgments (where a “defeater” is a good reason to doubt their veridicality).

Given the fallibility of human judgment, the path out of radical skepticism is to trust our immediate judgments just in case, after appropriate investigation, we encounter no defeaters for them (what constitutes “appropriate investigation” depends on context, an issue I touch on briefly in the next section).

It is not appropriate, given the fallibility of human judgment, to fend off skepticism by pretending that no human judgment is being made. While not all biblical inerrantists engage in that sort of pretense, many seem to. But when they do, it is a serious mistake.

In short, the inerrantist cannot escape human judgment any more than the progressive Christian can escape it. Every time the inerrantist defers to the teachings in the Bible (or, as I believe, pretends to defer), a human judgment underlies the act—namely, the judgment that the Bible is inerrant in every part.

I’ve already expressed my own cynical picture of what happens when the inerrantist does this—striving hard to make the text conform to their prior judgment of inerrancy, even if that means doing violence to the real meaning of the text. But rather than focus on defending this negative view of the inerrantist approach to the Bible, I want to explore more fully the significance of the fact that we cannot escape human judgment. More specifically, I want to explore what authentic humility requires of us in the face of this fact.

Religious Fanaticism

In an epistemological universe in which human judgment is impossible to escape, it becomes crucial to consider how best to make those judgments. For the sake of this post, I will take it that one of the criteria that should guide us is humility. Expressed in terms of a negation, we should avoid hubris. What I want to do is consider some examples of undue hubris at work in our judgments, since this may help us get closer to an understanding of what we need to do to avoid such hubris.

We express hubris in at least two ways: we express it when we have more confidence in our own judgments than we should, and we express it when we fail to appreciate that there may be truths that transcend the limits of our faculties which others may be better equipped to ascertain than us.
In my critical engagement with the new atheists and their allies, my focus has been on the latter. I have argued that there is good reason to suppose that there is more to reality than we can discern through the use of our senses and our reason, that there may be dimensions of reality that transcend the reach of even an idealized science. In Kant’s language, our cognitive faculties only give us access to phenomena—things as they appear to is. Nounema—things as they are in themselves—transcend the limits of our cognitive reach. And thus reality in its most fundamental sense defies our cognitive reach.

All of this entails a number of things. First, it means that when it comes to fundamental reality—things as they are in themselves rather than as they impress themselves upon us in ordinary experience—we cannot pretend that human reason and evidence are up to the task of giving us knowledge. What religious traditions have historically claimed is that while we cannot understand or perceive this fundamental reality, we can still encounter it in a “mystical” way. The divine can accomplish what we cannot: while we cannot by our active efforts grasp anything about the infinite, the infinite can reach down to us in ways that bring at least some level of insight. This insight would not come to us through the ordinary cognitive faculties through which we actively investigate our world, but rather through some different kind of consciousness in which we play a more passive role.

According to some (specifically Schleiermacher), this divine self-disclosure is actually a constant feature of our experience--but it is found at the subjective pole of consciousness rather than the objective one: when we become aware of being a unified subject of consciousness, we can sense the ground or root of that subjective existence in an immediate feeling of absolute dependence. The “whence” of this feeling is nothing other than the fundamental reality that lies behind all of experience, and when we immerse ourselves in this feeling we are immediately connected to the source of all being.

I don’t want to argue for the truth of this picture here. What I do want to say is that humility requires us to be open to such possibilities: to the possibility of being connected to and transformed by something greater than ourselves, a truth that defies the limits of our understanding. And if this possibility is real, and there are people who really have been transformed by a vivid consciousness of "the Absolute" or the divine, we should expect their capacity to understand the ordinary field of experience—not so much on the level of its empirical contents but in terms of “what it all means”—to be heightened. In short, we should be open to the possibility of divine revelation inspiring wisdom that exceeds what our ordinary cognitive faculties can tease out of the empirical world—wisdom that is especially salient with respect to how we should live and what we should value.

When I find fault with naturalists, it is with their tendency towards hubris on precisely this point. They are simply not open to the possibility that somewhere within the mess that we call religion, there is this core experience of the transcendent that can be a source of wisdom unattainable through empirical means. The demand for humility on this point is really a species of a broader requirement of humility—namely, that we affirm the possibility of wisdom that exceeds our own and to which we should defer.

I say “affirms the possibility of wisdom that exceeds our own” for the following reason: whenever we actually defer to another’s supposed wisdom, there lies behind that deference a fallible human judgment—to wit, that the one to which we defer really is wiser than we are. The irony here is this: the more foolish we are, the more likely we are to be duped into believing that another fool is truly wise. And so we get cases of fools leading fools. And often the fools who lead, while no more wise than the ones who follow, exceed their followers in selfishness and depravity. The fools who follow are thus led to behaviors far more pernicious than any they would have engaged in on their own.

Imagine a foolish follower of, say, Hitler. Let’s call him Friedrich. Friedrich, while foolish about some things, isn’t foolish about everything. For example, he happens to see nothing wrong with Jews and cannot understand the reasoning behind Hitler’s “Final Solution.” But he has foolishly judged Hitler to be wiser than himself, and so he defers to Hitler’s judgment on this matter even though the things he’s called upon to do strike his own conscience as horrific. He swallows back his horror and does as he is told, confident that Hitler knows something that Friedrich just doesn’t understand.

Were Friedrich a bit more humble, he might have questioned his own judgment that Hitler really deserved such unswerving obedience. Were Friedrich a bit less humble, he might have decided, on the basis of the conflict between Hitler’s judgment and Friedrich’s own, that Hitler was wrong. Either way, Friedrich’s wrong-headed allegiance to Hitler might have been avoided.

What Friedrich exemplifies is a dangerous combination of hubris and humility—dangerous because it primes Friedrich to be the tool of an evil such as Hitler and the Nazis. Friedrich exhibits hubris insofar as he doesn’t question his judgment that Hitler is a wise leader worth following. He exhibits humility insofar as he defers to someone he judges to be wiser than himself, trusting that Hitler understands things he doesn’t understand, and thus setting aside his own judgment concerning the wrongness of herding the Jews off to concentration camps.

Because he’s consistently practicing humility by setting aside his own judgments in favor of those coming down from the Nazi authorities, Friedrich may see nothing but the humility, never even noticing the hubris that lies behind it. And when he looks at an old classmate who’s joined the resistance, it may be that all he can see is the pride that this classmate is showing through his willingness to put his judgment above the Fuhrer’s wisdom.

I think something like this is going on in the case of religious fanaticism. At least in one useful sense of the term, religious fanatics are those who combine an unquestioning submission to God’s Word with a refusal to recognize that their beliefs about God’s Word could be wrong. They possess this deadly combination of humility and arrogance that hermetically seals them from all reason and evidence and can lead them to perform the most horrific crimes in the name of God.

Imagine a group of fanatics who believe that God has commanded them to kill all the infants in a nearby village—an act which has every outward appearance of being irrational. If fanatics were less humble, they might challenge God—arguing with Him (as Abraham is reported to have done prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), rejecting His command on the grounds that it makes no sense. If they were less arrogant, they might question themselves—that is, they might doubt their belief that God really commanded such a terrible thing. But they are too humble to do the former and too arrogant to do the latter (an arrogance that goes unnoticed by the fanatic because it is masked behind the more obvious humility). The combination is deadly.

Among the beliefs about God’s Word that could generate this dangerous fantacism is the belief that a particular person or institution…or text…speaks inerrantly for God. If the judgment to this effect is mistaken, but the person isn’t open to the possibility of error, then the person will invest a fallible person or institution or text with the kind of authority that only an omniscient and eternal God could possess.

Hence, with beliefs of this sort, an attitude of presumptive skepticism is justified. Even if these beliefs feel intuitively right to the person who ascribes to them, these sorts of beliefs aren’t “innocent”—the costs of believing them in error are potentially grave.

And when this is so, we cannot legitimately treat such beliefs as “properly basic”—a point that I don’t think Plantinga sufficiently emphasized in developing his “reformed epistemology.” To put it simply, context matters. And sometimes, given the context, an immediately intuited belief—one that “just seems right” in the manner of sense perception—could bring grave harms if believed falsely. When this is so, the burden of proof ramps up. In other words, while I think there is merit to Plantinga’s idea that basic beliefs besides the ones endorsed in classical epistemology have a claim on being “properly basic,” one of the criteria for such proper basicality is what I am calling innocence.

In fact, an earlier version of this post included a lengthy section in which I formally develop my critical revision of Plantinga, under the heading of “Reitan’s Pragmatically Modified Reformed Epistemology”—but while helpful in its own way for fully appreciating my reasoning, it was quite technical and it took the post too far off topic. And so I will develop it more fully as its own post later on (or, perhaps, in the article I’ve been meaning to write on the topic for awhile now).

For now, I simply want to stress the following: Hubris exists any time you trust one of your judgments more than you should in the given context. I am arguing here that the judgment that the Bible is inerrant is non-innocent. Hence, if you believe it just because it seems right to you, you are trusting your immediate judgment more than you ought to in this case. For inerrantism to be legitimate, inerrantists needs to meet a substantial burden of proof. “It feels right” is insufficient to meet this burden. And unless the burden is met, biblical inerrantism is in danger of becoming religious fanaticism.

The Case of Homosexuality

If anyone doubts that belief in biblical inerrancy is non-innocent, I invite you to view the documentary film, “For the Bible Tells Me So,” as well as other resources that offer a first-person portrait of what it is like to be gay (and, more specifically, how religious condemnations of homosexuality impact the lives of gays and lesbians).
I think the film demonstrates two things very well. First, there are serious hypothetical costs to treating the Bible as inerrant on the matter of homosexuality. Specifically, if the Bible is not correct on this issue, then treating it as if it is can and does do harm to gays and lesbians. Second, the costs are not merely hypothetical. Living as if the doctrine of biblical inerrancy were true has discernible costs, sometimes crushingly tragic ones, for actual human relationships involving gays and lesbians.

These bitter costs speak, I think, against the truth of the doctrine that generates them. But whether or not you agree with me on this point, it is hard to insist upon the non-innocence of biblical inerrancy if one takes a serious and unblinkered look at the pragmatic implications that allegiance to this doctrine has for gays and lesbians (and their loved ones) in the real world.

Whatever good is thought to come from the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is largely theoretical in character. The costs, however, are part of the immediate field of moral experience. That is, the kinds of effects produced by allegiance to this teaching are the sort that our immediate and pervasive moral intuitions would judge to be bad in the absence of any theoretic allegiance that would override our immediate moral experience. The effects I’m talking about are such things as emotional anguish and self-loathing, broken relationships, alienation from communities of origin, and suicidal depression.

Now blame for these effects can, of course, be shifted away from the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and put on the shoulders of gays and lesbians themselves: it is their sinful resistance to submitting themselves to the will of God that is causing all the trouble.

But here’s the problem with that move. As I’ve argued elsewhere, careful attention to the lived experience of our gay and lesbian neighbors teaches that there is a strong anti-evangelical effect to the idea that God categorically condemns homosexuality. It does not bring gays and lesbians closer to God. Rather, the overwhelming majority of gays and lesbians who are religious describe their relationship with God as damaged by the teaching that God condemns their sexuality. And it is typically only after they cast this teaching aside that they finally find themselves able to enter into a positive spiritual relationship with the divine. The kind of religious experience that most Christians would regard as healthy is found, not among gays and lesbians who internalize the categorical condemnation of homosexuality, but among those who set it aside as a false teaching.

Careful study of ex-gay ministries only seems to reinforce this conclusion, at least in my judgment: ex-gays who have left the movement describe their experiences in terms of living under a yoke of self-denial that leads to false consciousness. Such false consciousness effects every aspect of their lives, turning their religious life into a pretense or an artificial mantle of self-righteousness rather than a living, loving relationship with the transcendent. For gays and lesbians, the path to the latter seems to require a kind of self-acceptance that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy precludes.

But biblical inerrantism teaches that gays and lesbians need to suppress their sexuality in order to have a right relationship with God. In short, this doctrine has implications that are directly at odds with the lived spiritual experience of gays and lesbians. Now, it is always possible to ignore or dismiss their experience, to explain it away…but to do so out of deference to biblical authority is to place enormous confidence in one’s own human judgment that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is true--so confident that one’s judgment becomes immune even to the most anguished cries of our gay and lesbian neighbors.

Is such confidence justified, or is it hubris?

On a more basic level, the question is this: how can we show humility in the face of the inevitability of human judgment? This is what I turn to next.

True Humility

True humility involves, as I have argued, being open to the possibility of a transcendent reality touching and transforming us in ways that offer wisdom unattainable through our ordinary cognitive faculties. But any time that we decide that this person or that text contains such transcendent wisdom, or that this personal experience was an encounter with the transcendent, we are making a fallible human judgment. If we make the further judgment that this person or text or experience is inerrant and so worthy of complete deference, we thereby silence our critical faculties in ways that prevent any error in this judgment from being corrected. But since this judgment could be in error, hermetically sealing it from the possibility of subsequent correction is very dangerous—so dangerous, in fact, that I question whether our limited human faculties could ever provide enough evidence to meet the burden of proof that is required.

But none of this entails that we cannot believe we have encountered a divine revelation that offers wisdom beyond what our limited faculties can discern. What it does entail is that any such belief must be held to fallibilistically—that is, with an acknowledgment of the fallibility of the human judgment that gave rise to it. Such fallibility is acknowledged only when you adopt a posture such that you are open to being proved wrong. And since a doctrine of inerrancy demands the kind of absolute deference that blocks subsequent correction, ascribing inerrancy to some authority is incompatible with a fallibilist posture.

For practical purposes, when you declare that some book or institution or experience is inerrant, you are insisting that your own judgment to that effect must be inerrant as well. This is hubris.

One way to avoid such hubris is to refuse to even consider the possibility that there may be a transcendent reality that has revealed itself in the world, a revelation that makes possible wisdom than we could not have achieved on our own. But for practical purposes, this amounts to refusing to consider the possibility that there is wisdom greater than our own to which we should defer. This, too, is a kind of hubris (although perhaps a less dangerous kind).

So what is the path of true humility? It should come as a surprise to no one that I think the progressive Christian approach to the Bible, described in my last post, offers one way of steering a course between these species of hubris. This progressive approach does not preclude the view that humanity has encountered revelations that transcend what our faculties could discern on their own. It does not preclude the critical, reflective decision to believe that such revelations have impacted the ideas expressed in a book such as the Bible, if only we can distinguish between the influence of that transcendent reality and the limiting influence of the finite human recipients.

But it does preclude treating the text as inerrant. And it does require that any provisional judgment about transcendent revelation be lived out critically, with an openness to being proved wrong.

Since this has become another long post, I should end here. But I want to offer a more general account of true humility, of which progressive Christianity at its best is but one species. In general terms, the path of true humility calls us to render judgments only provisionally. We must never close off a judgment and say that it is final, that it is beyond all possibility of mistake. That is arrogance. We must be willing to consider objections. We must be so suspicious of our own intellects that we honestly and humbly check and recheck our reasoning for mistakes. When we encounter new insights that haven’t occurred to us before, and that challenge our original judgment, we must be prepared to lay aside all pride-induced attachments to our original view. We must, in short, be philosophers in the grand tradition of Socrates.

Richard Dawkins, of course, would have no objection to this. But there is something more that is called for by the path of humility, something that Dawkins doesn’t do. True humility requires us to admit that reality may transcend the limits of the human intellect and our sensory faculties. And so, real humility requires us to be open to being moved by the transcendent, by what our intellects and our senses cannot discern. Such openness, such quiet waiting for the transcendent to seize us, is another name for prayer.

And humility requires not merely that we be prayerful, but that we take seriously the ideas and insights of others who appear to exhibit such prayerfulness in combination with the humble rigors of a philosopher. In short, true humility calls us to be prayerful philosophers in a community of prayerful philosophers.

Now I happen to be a professional philosopher who prays. But what I am advocating here isn’t that everyone become like me. First of all, the ideal I am envisioning here is one to which I can only aspire. I cannot pretend to be as humble as I think I ought to be in my intellectual struggles, no can I pretend to be as prayerful.

Secondly, there are different ways of embodying philosophical virtues, and what I am advocating here is not just what we find in the profession of philosophy (in which these virtues are inevitably corrupted by the competition and ambition, the turf wars and the jealousies, that tend to characterize the professions). The kind of philosophical thinking I am advocating is something I’ve found embodied in adult church groups whose participants have been plumbers and school teachers and poets and physicians. It has nothing to do with professional training.

Rather, it is about thoughtful conversations with others, in which listening carefully (especially to criticism) is as important as thinking and expressing oneself carefully. And it is about doing so in a spirit of openness to being moved by that which transcends us.

As ever, of course, I could be wrong.


  1. I agree with this post and am very grateful to you for writing it, so I'm just asking this question to be annoying:

    What would be a "defeater" for your belief in "the impossibility of avoiding human judgment"?

    I mean, it's always seemed obvious to me, from examining the workings of my own mind, and yet this argument fails to convince my conservative Christian friends who believe that the Pope and/or the Bible are infallible. Their response could usually be summarized as "well, then a miracle occurs"...they feel that there HAS to be some source of perfect knowledge that God miraculously places above the normal fray of fallible judgments, but they refuse to understand that they're still fallibly deciding WHAT that source of knowledge is.

    The reason I ask for a defeater, then, is that you say that a humble person should be aware of the defeaters for their beliefs. Obviously you don't think "the impossibility of avoiding human judgment" is an infallible belief, so can you give an example of some argument or piece of evidence that could theoretically change your mind about this?

  2. Hi, Eric-

    "The “whence” of this feeling is nothing other than the fundamental reality that lies behind all of experience, and when we immerse ourselves in this feeling we are immediately connected to the source of all being."

    My mouth is agape. Time and again you refer to truth, "a truth that defies the limits", reality, transcendent reality, wisdom, divine revelation, etc., and now "fundamental reality" and "source of all being" ... all in a bid to attack others for having insufficient humility. Surely you must understand how self-defeating this is.

    No one disputes the Kantian approach to reality via Plato's cave. But if one's understanding of reality can not be reasoned about or founded on evidence, then it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is feeling.

    The new atheists may not be personally humble, but they are epistemologically humble, as you point out towards the end. They do not shower their opponents with claims of "truths" beyond their opponent's capacity to understand, or realities beyond the reach of evidence, or personal experiences with peculiar veridical capacities untouchable by reason. And so forth.


    "When I find fault with naturalists, it is with their tendency towards hubris on precisely this point. They are simply not open to the possibility that somewhere within the mess that we call religion, there is this core experience of the transcendent that can be a source of wisdom unattainable through empirical means."

    Naturalists have no beef with the occurrence of such experiences, or with their transformative nature. Or even with the possibility that such experiences might be extremely conducive to new social relations or personal views of reality at large.

    Where we differ is whether this comes from an external source or from the person's own brain as hallucinogenic experiences do, spiritually moving as those can be likewise. The implication that there has been some traffic with transcendent realities, levels, chakras, deities, dimensions, spirits, etc. is completely without merit other than in our own fertile imaginations. The evidence about these beliefs is voluminous in supporting endogenous origin over various physics-defying forms of, well, superstition. And not very humble superstition at that.

    At any rate, I appreciate the skepticism you show toward inerrancy. That skepticism needs to be raised a notch, however, to deal with the presumptions you still retain.

  3. I don't deny that many of the most visible and evangelical proponents of strict naturalism (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.) display a repugnant epistemological hubris in their work, and I don't disagree with a narrow reading of your openness requirement. So while I'll agree that we have an epistemic obligation to remain open to the possibility that there exist fundamental aspects of reality beyond our powers of observation, I don't think we then need to turn around and admit that some people might have a special ability to connect with that reality. There is just no evidence of any such ability that isn't better explained in naturalistic terms. I remain open to the possibility that fundamental reality is profoundly different than it appears to the senses we all have, but that openness is similar to the openness I maintain toward evil genius scenarios. By their very nature such realities are not refutable, but it is also irrational to hold an affirmative belief in any particular one.

    Your appeal for prayerfulness seems to demand that all people attempt to develop an extra sense the existence of which is doubtful. I don't see that you've made the case for any such obligation.

  4. Burk,

    I hope that you'll take this in the spirit it's offered - not one of truculence but of mild critique - but your post offers absolutely no argument at all. You simply assert, in various ways, that we can have no reliable contact with an extra-empirical reality, but you offer us no reason why this is so. Now, perhaps you have reasons ready to hand and can spring them on us whenever you like, but they're not on display here. If find this a bit odd, for you tell us again and again that we must have evidence for our beliefs.

  5. Burk,
    Isn't the evidentiary preference for "reason" over "feeling" itself a feeling? An act of will, rather than something that can be proven by reason? I'm (dimly, alas) recalling William James' "The Will to Believe" - the notion that we first choose where to place the burden of proof (for naturalism versus religion), based on our own personal preferences or temperament, which then determines which arguments we find reasonable.

    Perhaps different people will look at the exact same evidence and say "Holy Spirit" or "hallucination" based on what kind of universe they want to live in.

    For me personally, my faith in Christ is strengthened by the apparent impossibility of resolving these crucial questions through reason alone. Here's why: if it matters that I be good and do the right thing, but I can never be absolutely sure WHAT that is, belief in a loving and forgiving God is the best way I've found to avoid perpetual anxiety and shame.

  6. Hi, Franklin-

    No need to be mild if you don't wish to be. I guess I assumed that Eric and fellow theists do not take themselves entirely seriously (or at least literally) when dealing in spirits, other dimensions, and fundaments of existence. But you indicate that you do, and that if I am taken aback by this putative traffic in the transcendent, I have to disprove that you are in touch with private orders of reality superior to the common run.

    Very well. The first point to make is that one can not disprove a nondisprovable idea. If you say that you witnessed (privately) the second coming of the celestial teapot, then I have no way of gainsaying it. But if you construct this as a truth claim with external referents- that celestial teapots are real and we all should worship them (or at least consider the possibility that such things are conceivable and pour out wisdom when properly tipped, ...), then the burden is on you to provide evidence about it. These are literally outlandish claims, and do not deserve presumptive credit.

    I realize that you have probably been raised with such ideas as mother's milk (though you would dismiss as ridiculous parallel ideas from elsewhere- hidden Imams, Bodhisattvas, Xenu's electric ribbons, etc.). But we are supposedly doing philosophy here, not apologetics, so we supposedly know which side of our bread the jam is on, as it were.

    One small bit of related evidence is the lack of significant difference between those who supposedly indulge in correspondence with higher planes of existence and those who don't. As we have seen from the ongoing pastor scandals and Ted Haggard exposées, etc., this "wisdom" does not amount to much in practice. It seems neither to provide the least scientific insight into the workings of reality, nor practical wisdom about the supposedly all-important franchise of moral knowledge, or, really, anything else. Of course we had already been through all that during the spiritualism epidemic a century ago.

    The second point is about the confined nature of our mental processes. No scientist studying mental processes pays the least attention to the ideas cited above. The brain plus its sensory apparatus is all they work with, and that is plenty. There are new senses being worked on all the time, like the sense of body position, and the synesthesia between senses like music and color. But the physics of super senses that detect other dimensions and planes of existence is without foundation. There is no avenue for their reception, nor any physical plausibility for their existence. They are entirely imaginary.

    On the other hand, the capacity for human minds to conjure such feelings and conceptions is legendary. LSD gets you there, as does oxygen deprivation. The fact that we experience transports of significance and meaning says nothing about whether they map to reality as what we would properly call "truth". Their subjective existence is indisputable, but as William James concluded, their significance is not admissible as philosophy.

    "The fact is that the mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation has no specific intellectual content whatever on its own. It is capable of forming matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theologies, provided only they can find a place in their framework for its peculiar emotional mood." -James, TVORE

  7. Burk,

    I detect three arguments. I'd like to know that I have them right before I weigh in.

    1. If there were such a thing as a transcendent reality and we humans can and do get into contact with it, then those who are in contact with it would be better human beings that those who are not. But there are no such differences in moral character. Thus even if there is a transcendent reality, we human beings aren't in contact with it.

    2. Scientists have discovered no faculty withig our neurophysiology that would make possible contact with a transcendent reality. Thus there likely is no such thing. Thus likely we have no knowledge of the transcendent even if there is such a thing.

    3. Mystical/religious states can be produced in such a way that makes them quite unlikely to have a real, external object. (LSD, oxygen deprivation, etc.) Moreover, such states can be incorporated into widely divergent metaphysical schemes; they have no particular cognitive content of their own. Thus such states should not be taken to give us contact with a transcendent reality, and thus again knowledge of such a reality is undercut.

  8. Franklin,
    I believe you left out the most compelling of Burk's arguments: that specific religious claims are so extraordinary that they demand a high burden of proof on the part of the believer.

  9. Hi, Franklin-

    There might be four, really. 1 is OK, except that I don't myself posit that human beings would be better or not if they are in contact with transcendent, etc. It is the believer's claim that they are, and also that they are gaining some kind of "truth" that should be construed as knowledge. Buddhism and Islam are full of claims that their respective forms of enlightenment conferred special knowledge of all things, including scientific, on their prophets. This is obviously hogwash.

    2 is OK, except that it is stronger than you put it. It is not only that scientists have not discovered such interfaces to date, but that there are natural law-based reasons to bar the existence of any such interfaces, such as the laws of thermodynamics. Science knows of all possible forms of transmissible information (electromagnetic, aural)- brains do not detect neutrinos or gravitons, etc. So we are left with no extra modes of transmission. I know this is a strong claim, but as our brains are chemical entities, there are strong physical bounds on what interactions they can participate in. This is true even if one were to propose souls, since then these have to find a way to interact with brains, which is the same problem, in essence.

    3 is pretty close, except that I do not say there are no cognitive contents to these experiences. There certainly are. The dispute is whether these cognitive contents can be used to infer external "truths", like extra dimensions of being, deities, fundaments, etc. The capacity of subjective thought to range over vast and unreal dimensions is well-documented.

    4th, there was my first point that the burden of proof, when you say that your mystical experiences put you in contact with higher dimensions of reality, is on you to show, not on me to disprove. If these contacts give you knowledge of quantum mechanics, that should be evident. If they give you knowledge of absolute morality, then that should be evident as per the claims in #1., rather than morality changing with the times as is evident in all traditions, errant and inerrant alike. Likewise, positing magical means of brain-supernatural communication is convenient and easy enough, but the burden of proof is on the proposer, not the skeptic, to show actual means by which this takes place, and/or show examples of special "knowledge" that results therefrom.

    As we all know, the miracles of scripture are the badges of faith- proof that there really are such realms above and beyond, etc. etc. But the value of such stories is deeply compromised by normal critical methods, leaving us in the position we are today.. where the mere non-disprovability of spiritual entities (carefully engineered to evade empirical engagement) stands as their only defense.

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  12. I am quite interested in the Eric-Franklin/Burk-Cheek dynamic on this blog. You all are open-minded, but opinionated people debating something which I don't think they ultimately disagree on too much. At least in any way that would cause them to make any different, practical judgements in life. I could be wrong though...

    Forgive the following short play (obviously I am putting words in the writers' mouths, perhaps VERY unjustly):

    E/F: Surely we must remain open to subjective experience, especially when it is validated by the many subjective experiences of others. Can’t the nature of reality be explored by individual consciousness?

    B/C: Sure, but we can't make those subjective experiences into universal statements about all people without empirical evidence. We can’t expect everyone to follow the voices in your head.

    E/F: I agree that, almost by their very nature, the revelations of these explorations fall short of the scientific requirements for truth, or better, "fact". Of course, we cannot force any conclusions onto someone else.

    B/C: So there is reasonable doubt?

    E/F: In my conclusions about the transcendent? Yes. There would be no faith without it. I don’t believe in life after death - I HOPE for life after death, and I see benefit in life from having that hope.

    B/E: But you don’t require the same belief of me? Because I think it’s a superfluous “extra” that has no basis in empirical evidence.

    E/F: Understood. No, I don’t think it is required that you believe! I am talking about faith not knowledge here. Faith comes in where knowledge ends.

    B/C: But surely faith is often mistaken for knowledge with negative consequences.

    E/F: Agreed. It is dangerous, but worthwhile, I think. The evidence of this is in the positive aspects it adds to my life. But many people do abuse faith by confusing it with belief - or 100% knowledge. This is a violation of faith and leads to fundamentalism.

    B/C: So you want me to admit that it’s intellectually honest to pursue feelings and first person experience as a means to truth, as long as it does not lead to claims which violate empirical evidence.

    E/F: That’ll work.

    B/C: I don’t really see the benefit personally, but OK. Want to grab a beer?

    E/F: What kind?

    B/C: Six of these, half a dozen of the other.

    E/F: 12? We'd better invite Steven.

    B/F: Who?

    Steven: Put me down for a couple of those beers.

    We must maintain an open feeling towards our own being and never lose sight of basic awareness as the source of everything, including our own study of our awareness. It would violate parsimony to think that our human faculties give us anything close to a perfect sense of what is physically going on around us constantly. And ultimately, everything is “just in our heads.”

  13. (cont.)

    But I also think that any action in life, of consequence to the greater community -must be based on empirical data. Of course, the way we should act on that data is not prescribed by naturalistic philosophy, although any "metaphysical" value system is the product of naturalism. Another ironic loop of existence. But the physical world and materialism is not a challenge to the ultimate, jaw-dropping “HUH??” of life. Consider the space between electrons - are we really that substantial?

    I see naturalism as simply the idea that all is interrelated by cause and effect. "supernatural" concepts that seek to show instances of the suspension of cause and effect seem problematic. Even if they are true, we can't know it. I think supernatural claims take myths, which try to describe the source, the “HUH?” and try to turn them into literal, physical occurrence. This is unwise, unjustified and it takes away the true power of those symbolic statements. Symbols point to something too powerful to be described in vernacular language. Making them literal takes away their universal reach, and limits their power to one-time events. It takes God away from NOW and places Him squarely at THEN.

    But any system of “knowing” - like science or experience or anything - is rife with human bias. That’s why true spirituality, to me, is all about our own perspective. How do we choose to view existence?

    But faith and naturalism don't seem enemies at all to me. Faith is about not knowing, and approaching that with humility. I see nothing intellectually dishonest about intuitive searching. In fact, we all do it constantly, no matter what anyone says, right? But, as the other side suggests - there must be accountability when our conclusions translate into actions which affect others.

    Now for a beer............wait, where are they? (counting the empties) Thanks a lot guys!

  14. Gotcha Burk. I'm at work on a response to 2. I'm glad I asked about your intent. I'll have to go back and revise my response a bit.

    I think I might make it a post on my own blog. I don't want to clutter Eric's too much. But tell me if you want to continue here - it will have a larger audience.

  15. First, I appreciate the reasoned, civil discussion on the original post. Quite refreshing.

    Second, the thing I like best about the post is the call to humility, and the unmasking of hubris where it sneaks in to inerrancy and other positions. I feel like we need our inerrantists to debate back! Since I don't hold that position anymore, I'm not really qualified. But, I would add this from an ex-inerrantist perspective: how far does humility go for the progressive Christian? Far enough to challenge them again on issues they may have previously made up their minds about, like homosexuality? Or, far enough to challenge them on scriptures where they think God cannot possibly be speaking to them because the text is offensive, when maybe God could be?

    (I write those questions as an absolute believer in the need for continuing questioning and critique of my own beliefs)

  16. Burk,

    Reply to #2 complete at The Philosophical Midwife. The title is "Reason and the Senses".

  17. "True humility involves, as I have argued, being open to the possibility of a transcendent reality touching and transforming us in ways that offer wisdom unattainable through our ordinary cognitive faculties."

    One might ask what the point of such wisdom would be, if not to gain insight which would justify a lack of humility. Suppose Einstein saw the promised land of relativity and kept it to humbly himself, would that be properly humble? Suppose he explained what he experienced in a modest publication and no one believed him because his experience was so far beyond the experiences and thoughts of others that they just couldn't grasp it. Would he be best off dropping it and going fishing? No again, because >if< he has an insight that is true and valuable, he had better shout it from the rooftops, or never be forgiven in later years, both by himself and by society at large.

    Thus if the insight gained through transcendence is both true and valuable, as one hears it is, then it is absolutely incumbant on the experiencer to evangelize about it and throw humility to the wind. It would be good if her insight could be verified by others, and in this case is it richly verified by others, indicating that it is really, truly, the real deal.

    The only problem creeps in if the truth or value of the transcendent experience is actually questionable, despite the corroboration provided by hundreds of millions of fellow experiencers over many centuries of practice. That other people are equally justified, indeed adamant, in not accepting the offered evangelization, there being no logical or other philosophically necessary reason for doing so.

    In short, if there is some large difference in kind between the "reality" being touched and the wisdom being gained in this case vs Einstein's case. And I would suggest (very unhumbly by your proffered definition) that such a difference does exist, specifically that such transcendence provides an experience that is personally meaningful but completely bereft of wisdom extending in any way beyond the personal and subjective.

    In the end, offering definitions of humility that revolve around accepting one's own peculiar and unjustifiable notions of reality seems somewhat disingenous. Not humble, one might almost say. How about we just say that humility is a civic good whose practitioners engage others with reasonable respect in mutually desired debates that, with any luck, use mutually accessible points of reference such as common experience, logic, or empirical observation.

  18. Lastly, (and I apologize for continuing on so long), I should say something about prayer. One model of prayer is that is allows us contact with our own unconscious- a somewhat foreign zone that can give unique insight, including communally significant insight, it being culturally and evolutionarily patterned. This would be consistent with physics, psychology, and everything else known to date, not to mention being a humble approach to the phenomenon.

    On the other hand, and I am not sure from this post where you really stand on this, prayer/meditation might grant us contact with the creator of the universe, to transcedent dimensions of reality, sources of ultimate being, etc, which might either be somewhat overblown metaphors or else what I would term a frankly deluded conception of what is going on, if taken seriously, since it contravenes everything we reliably know about brain function, and indeed meditation specifically.

    The latter view is the ultimate origin of much of the hubris deprecated elsewhere in the post. For if one were actually in contact with the source of all being, etc. and she told you to evangelize, or invade Iraq, etc., then it follows that that is just what should be done. A defective (and not very humble) epistemology would lead necessarily to what we on the outside would call hubris, but what the experiencer would call truth.

  19. Having just had the chance to check this blog since posting my last entry, it has been enjoyable to see the exchange that has been occuring in my absence. Unfortunately, since I only have a few hours in my office while the babysitter watches the kids (the computer at home has been crashed for weeks), and a couple of deadlines to meet, I don't have time to chime in with much of any detail or substance.

    I do want to acknowledge Jendi's interesting question about a "defeater" for my belief in the impossibility of avoiding human judgment. I suppose the short answer is this: this belief is grounded in a sustained instrospective examination of how my cognitive faculties operate. A defeater would be a line of argument which would (a) point out something relevant that I have overlooked in this introspective study, and then (b) show how this oversight leads the way to true beliefs without any sort of human judgment--mediated or unmediated.

    Since I have yet to encounter such an argument (or even begin to fathom what such an argument might point to), my belief in the impossibility of avoiding human judgment in the sphere of beliefs remains, for me, undefeated.

  20. One other comment, in response to the following:

    "Time and again you refer to truth, 'a truth that defies the limits', reality, transcendent reality, wisdom, divine revelation, etc., and now 'fundamental reality' and 'source of all being' ... all in a bid to attack others for having insufficient humility. Surely you must understand how self-defeating this is."

    I can see how it WOULD be humble to say, "There may be more to reality than what I can glean through my finite human capacities." I cannot see how it would be especially humble to say, "In the absence of evidence provided by my cognitive faculties, I should believe that there is nothing more to reality than what I can glean through my cognitive faculties...even though, of course, were there more to reality than what I can glean through my cognitive faculties, my cognitive faculties would be in principle incapable of providing evidence to this effect."

    I think Braun is mistaking "openness to the possibility of being moved by something transcendent" for "unquestioned certainty about specific doctrines concerning the transcendent." The latter is hubris. The former is not.

    What gets interesting is when, adopting an attitude of such openness (which I think humility requires), you then have an extraordinary experience which FEELS veridical (it has something akin to that same feeling of being acted UPON from the outside that accompanies sense perception). And it feels awesome and profound. And it feels astonishingly reassuring, even a source of joy unparalleled in one's life so far.

    Of course, it is hard to disentangle the feeling from the language we use to describe it (and the inevitable interpretation that goes with it). But suppose you have this feeling, which at least can be described/interpreted in these terms.

    The question isn't whether it is undue hubris to then announce that you have absolute certainty that the Judeo-Christian God is real and that all people who deny Him are fools who will burn forever in fiery torment for their sins. Obviously, on the basis of such a experience, this move would be extreme hubris.

    The question is whether it would be undue hubris to attend to the naturalist explanations of the feeling, which explain it AWAY as non-veridical, and then say, "That MIGHT be correct, but that is as much an interpretation of the experience as is the view that the experience is some kind of mystical encounter with something beyond the world of ordinary experience. And the experience FELT more like the latter. Since my life somehow makes more sense, feels more integrated, when I judge it to be precisely THAT, I choose to live in hope rather than in the fear of being duped."

    Is THAT hubris? It may be something else derogatory ("wish-thinking" is Hitchens' term--although I contest the propriety of that label on a variety of grounds in my book). But HUBRIS?

    Steven: I like your little dialogue. It's a shame that blogging doesn't afford the discussants the chance to lubricate their conversation with some good beer.

  21. Ah, yes- it is wise to retreat to the position that what we have through transcendent experiences is >feeling<. I completely agree. But why then bring up the prospects of higher realities and deeper truths, etc? That is simply proffering a mirage that can not possibly be supported by the nature and content of such feelings, unless you put aside all semblence of skepticism (especially on the matter of our feelings of veridicality being themselves prone to manipulation through suggestion, drugs, neurological conditions, etc.). Anyhow, I should end here, having said all one can in support of using evidence to investigate and evaluate such feelings. I have added a final set of comments here. Thanks to all!

  22. Burk and Eric, I have a question that is a little off topic: Have you guys read the book "Irreducible Mind" by Kelly et al (2007)?

    If not, I highly recommend it.

    - Pat

  23. Thanks, Eric, that answers my question re: defeaters. I'll buy you a virtual beer :)