Friday, March 12, 2010

Take Two: Ariel Sightings and Atheist Faith

Reposted here is one of my earliest blog posts, from back in October 2008. It's worth revisiting for the "Ariel Sighting" alone, I think. Enjoy!

A few days ago, as my family was getting loaded into the car for a thrilling afternoon of shopping, we all noticed a bird dropping on the rear driver’s side window—a mostly white SPLAT with, of course, the requisite dribbles (now dry).

Actually, I should say that my wife and I noticed it, as did our five-year-old son. My daughter, who is two, didn’t notice it until a little while later, as we were driving away from a visit to Goody’s Department Store.We were pulling out of our parking space when my daughter shouted out, “Ariel!”

I glanced around and saw no obvious images of the Little Mermaid, but my daughter is good at spotting them even when I don’t. A few months ago, at the airport, her Ariel radar proved to be especially keen, and whenever she cried out “Ariel!” or “Mermaid!” I would eventually (after looking around for a few minutes), find some tiny Little Mermaid bookmark in a shop window or an Ariel backpack disappearing around a corner (attached to the back of a flouncy five-year-old with pigtails).

But this time I could see nothing of the sort. “Where?” I asked.

She pointed insistently out her brother’s window. I looked out across the parking lot, in the direction she had indicated, but saw nothing…until I abruptly realized she was pointing at the window.

To be precise, she was pointing at the bird poop. And as I looked at it, the splat of excrement took on a new meaning. I could see Ariel rising in the water, her hair streaming behind her, her fish tail lost in a roiling swirl, clearly about to be transformed into legs. The poop bore a remarkable resemblance to the scene from Disney’s The Little Mermaid in which Ariel is rising to the surface of the ocean just after visiting with the sea witch, as her wish for human legs is in the process of coming true.

And I thought to myself: “Too bad it doesn’t look like Our Lady of Guadalupe. Then I could remove the window, laminate it, and sell it on e-Bay for $28,000.”

Instead, when we stopped to fill gas, I went after the Ariel image with the blue window washing liquid and squeegee courteously supplied by the gas station. In moments, Ariel was no more.

The lesson, of course, is this: bird poop is always forming patterns. Most of the time these patterns don’t match any to which we’ve attached special significance. Sometimes they match ones that are deeply important only to two-year-olds. And, every once in awhile, they’re going to match images that someone, somewhere, invests with religious meaning. The same is true, of course, of patterns in toast and chocolate drippings.

And so, when it just so happens that an image imprinted in toast looks like the Blessed Virgin, it really doesn’t make any more sense to view this as a sign from God than it does to view Ariel-in-bird-poop as a sign from Triton the Sea King.

But many religious people are hungry for signs of this sort—tangible images which we can see or touch or (God forbid) taste. They long for a world in which God shows up not just as a quiet presence in a moment of meditative prayer, but in more straightforwardly empirical ways.

Of course, there is a long theological tradition which claims that God does show up in the empirical world all the time because the very existence of the empirical world in all its wonder and mystery is a constant manifestation of the divine. Such a theological view has no need for Virgin Mary sightings, because the entire created world in every aspect is a constant testament to the glory of God. (I should note that this tradition of thought, although it needn't exclude talk of miracles, is very different from the tradition of religious thought which is fixated on miraculous suspensions of natural laws).

But this idea that the empirical world is an ongoing manifestation of the divine is a WAY of seeing the world—and there are other ways to see it, too. A religious worldview offers one set of glasses through which to interpret and understand the meaning of our ordinary experience. But there are non-religious worldviews that do this, too. So long as these worldviews do not call upon us to reject or deny empirical facts or the best understandings of the patterns by which the material world works (in the way that, say, Young Earth Creationists do), there is nothing in the empirical evidence that will force us to prefer one such worldview to another. There may be more broadly philosophical reasons to favor one general worldview over another, but the empirical data by itself is “polysemitic”—that is, able to be invested with alternative fundamental meanings.

And this means that the embrace of a broadly religious worldview will always be a matter of choice and hope, not a matter of certainty. But many are uncomfortable with living in hope. For a variety of reasons they long for a certainty that is impossible to have, at least in this world we live in.

We see this hunger for certainty not just among the religious, but also among many atheists, who insist that their naturalistic worldview—according to which the world we encounter through our senses and through scientific investigation constitutes all that there is—is an incontrovertible truth established by the empirical evidence. But it should be plain that the question, “Is there more to reality than meets the eye?”, will not be answered by pointing out that I cannot see more to reality than meets my eye. Empirical evidence cannot settle the question of whether there are orders of reality beyond the empirical one.

But the hunger for certainty leads many to look for empirical evidence that confirms in some way their worldview. And this is why so many cling to Virgin Mary sightings. They want something in the empirical world that settles the question of what, if anything, lies beyond the world. The problem, of course, is that nothing will really do this trick. Even if the heavens parted tomorrow and a booming voice declared to the entire planet, “I AM,” it would still be possible to be an atheist. After all, the manifestation might be the work of space aliens (or the result of a freakishly rare confluence of natural events that produced a sonic boom which, by virtue of our tendency to discern anthropomorphic patterns in natural events, we interpreted as the words “I AM”).

In short, to look for proof that your way of seeing the world is the right one by pointing to images of the Blessed Virgin in a grilled cheese sandwich is just shifting the problem of interpretation down one level. The image in the grilled cheese is itself polysemitic, and to treat that image as the deliberate product of a transcendent God is to offer one possible interpretation among many.

In the words of the theologian John Hick, “the true character of the universe does not force itself upon us, and we are left with an important element of freedom and responsibility in response to it…I would suggest that this element of uncompelled interpretation in our experience of life is to be identified with faith in the most fundamental sense of that word.”

If there is a God, he hasn’t created a universe in which His presence is unambuously attested to, perhaps because such an uncompromising testament to His presence would stifle our development as autonomous selves. And if there is no God, then nothing in the universe cares enough about us to make the fundamental nature of reality manifest to us. And so we are left with the “element of uncompelled interpretation” that Hick identifies with faith.

In other words, even the atheist has faith when we get to the most basic level of interpretation. I would argue that even agnostics have faith in this sense, insofar as some kind of implicit worldview is needed in order to live one’s life in any kind of coherent way. At least on an implicit or practical level, we make a decision about what the world is like at its root. And it’s just that, inescapably that: a decision. It's a decision that ought to pay attention to the facts. That is, we should make sure as best we can that our interpretation fits with the facts.

But I am sceptical of anyone who claims that only one worldview, or one kind of worldview, will offer such a fit.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    This is very interesting. But I think the case against making things up goes a bit deeper. The history of assigning theistic meanings to uncanny occurrences and mysteries (even earthquakes!) is a long and tawdry one, starting with all-encompassing animism, and backing off today to ... ("not call upon us to reject or deny empirical facts") ... the origin of the universe and other deep mysteries.

    This is to say that there is a well-documented human tendency to see meaning in things, just as you say. Once we take this tendency seriously, we see that it is not good enough to just imbue hoped-for meaning into things we don't understand (or hope for orders of reality we don't understand, in order to imbue them with hoped-for meaning), for that just repeats the errors of more primitive idolatries.

    No, we have to start over, epistemologically, and only derive meaning from relations that we do understand. That is the way to escape our ever-projecting psychology and settle on a stable, not to mention accurate, view of the world.

    "... whether there are orders of reality beyond the empirical one"? Who cares? We can't detect or feel or know them, or be affected by them, (by definition), so speculating and hoping about them is again plain projection, brought on by one's traditions, training, and psychology. Either they impinge on us palpably, or they don't. I'll grant that we live within a huge tapestry of mysteries, even with the great deal of knowledge gained so far. Yet that should induce us to learn more, not to make up stuff.

    The idea that "God shows up not just as a quiet presence in a moment of meditative prayer" is just as projecting as seeing Ariel in a bird-splat. Many cultures have other constructions of such feelings, theistic and non. Now neuroscience is taking its whack as well.

    There are indeed imaginable phenomena that would be clear signs of god- this was a major theme of the scriptures-devising just such scenarios for everyone's entertainment and edification- wily snakes, talking bushes, commandments from the sky. The possibilities are endless- indeed, something as simple as fossils out of order would be immensely jarring. (The fact that psychisms, virgins on toast, and the like are not such evidence just indicates how thin the supernatural gruel is these days, and how cramped the imaginations of supernaturalists have become.) Atheists would certainly not brush such things off as easily as you indicate. They would try to make sense of them, as it were, (with ontologies at hand), but if some higher being was the only conclusion, then fine .. that would be what we were left with. Atheism is not about reaching a pre-determined conclusion, but about reading the text of the world clearly.

    To claim that .. "such an uncompromising testament to His presence would stifle our development as autonomous selves" .. conveniently backs right into the corner of making the world seem awfully like "He" doesn't really exist, as do all those fossils "He" buried to throw us off his trail! If you fairly compare the worldview that takes these messages at face value with worldviews that impute "hidden" theisms behind them (your choice!), well, there really isn't any contest philosophically, though obviously there might be psychologically.

    Lastly, about this one: "And if there is no God, then nothing in the universe cares enough about us to make the fundamental nature of reality manifest to us." This is another way of saying that you (or Hick) assume there is a god which is necessary to produce manifest worlds or reveal them to us. It is not a statement that does any real work. It is also an unnecessary assumption, yet again projecting your need to be cared for out into the cosmos.

  2. Eric:

    You write: “[…] but the empirical data by itself is “polysemitic”—that is, able to be invested with alternative fundamental meanings.

    By “empirical data” I take you mean the objective data that science concerns itself with. I have two comments I’d like to add here:

    If there are various realities that would produce the same empirical data then, of course, one cannot use that data to decide which of these possible realities has actually produced them. On the other hand new data may falsify some of these alternative realities, for actual reality cannot be such as not to produce the entire range of empirical data we have observed. For example, modern science (and specifically quantum mechanics) has falsified the previously strongly held naturalistic belief that reality is “local”, i.e. that all physical effects propagate at finite speeds and affect at first their immediate local environment. Einstein famously derided such claimed effects as “spooky actions at a distance”. He was so certain that these cannot exist that he proposed thought experiments to show exactly that, which it turned out could actually be performed, were performed, and ended up proving Einstein wrong. So, for all practical purposes we now know that reality, whether naturalistic or not, is *not* local, but rather displays non-locality, which is a property long associated with minds.

    A strong case can be made that the observational facts related with quantum mechanics falsify all naturalistic realities, at least those that conform to three principles any naturalist living at the beginning of the 20th century would have agreed are entailed by naturalism, namely that each one of us only exists in the universe we observe around us, that causality never works backwards in time, and that matter is not contingent on consciousness. In other words the case can be made that science falsifies all plausible naturalistic realities. Surely one of the great intellectual surprises of the last century was to recognize that a) an empirical reality amenable to mechanistic modeling (in which science excels) does not necessarily imply that the objective reality which produces it is similarly amenable to mechanistic modeling, and b) we live in the rare kind of reality where such implication does not obtain. Given the enormous problem that this insight produces for naturalism I have always wondered why theists have rarely used it in their arguments. I suppose the myth that science favors naturalism is so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness that even theists find it difficult to conceive that the very opposite is the case.

    You write: “ At least on an implicit or practical level, we make a decision about what the world is like at its root. And it’s just that, inescapably that: a decision.

    I agree that for most people a naturalistic worldview is a viable alternative if one only considers empirical data, and thus that most people must make a decision between naturalism and religion. But, if I am right, they do not actually have to make such a decision, for any mechanistic understanding of reality is not really a viable alternative, even if one only takes into account objective data.

  3. Burk:

    You write: “Who cares [whether there are orders of reality beyond the empirical one]? We can't detect or feel or know them, or be affected by them, (by definition) [snip]”

    But of course we can. Suppose such a metaphysical order, beyond the empirical order we now observe when we look at the physical world around us, exists. Then, when we die we may perceive it directly. Or there may be ways to directly perceive that order in this life too, perhaps by way of mystical experiences. Or, in this life, we may draw ethical strength from it, even when not directly perceiving it. Or we may discover knowledge about it, perhaps by considering issues not entailed in the empirical world, such as our moral sense or our sense of freedom or our sense of personal responsibility. Or the knowledge of it may cause us to perceive the empirical order as being more beautiful, thus actually transforming the empirical order. There are really a million ways in which a reality beyond the empirical order may affect us. The idea that unless something belongs to the objectively perceived empirical order around us, it can’t possibly affect us and can’t therefore be an object of knowledge, is an implication of naturalism perhaps, but it’s not like what naturalism implies must be true, and even less that it is true by definition.

    There is something in naturalism that tends to make naturalists think in question-begging ways, or even shift the meaning of concepts in a way that is question-begging (e.g. by conflating "existence" with "physical existence", or "evidence" with "physical evidence"). One more reason for a naturalist to be especially careful and always try to see the other point of view. Actually it would be interesting if you explained how you came to think that we can't "by definition" be affected by a metaphysical order which lies beyond the empirical order.

  4. Hi, Dianelos-

    You ask a good question, and I would start by saying that supernaturalism consists of trying to have your cake and eat it too. That is, it posits some realm that you are not responsible to account for in an explicit fashion (i.e. empirically), but which at the same time you call on to "explain" whatever empirical mystery interests you at the moment. But you can't have it both ways. Either it is truly "beyond" the empirical world, and thus doesn't impinge on it, or else it does impinge on it, and through those effects can be observed.

    Your comments on quantum physics are emblematic- however odd, these phenomena are part of this real, empirical world, thus can not be fobbed off on supernaturalism or other orders of reality. Indeed, to say that "There are really a million ways in which a reality beyond the empirical order may affect us." is to miss the point of the word "empirical". Your list of ways by which we might be affected by such realms speak eloquently to their empirical nature (or perhaps of their imaginary nature). Which is to say, "information gained by means of observation, experience, or experiment."

    One problem is a persistant misunderstanding of the word "metaphysical", which was just the section after Aristotle's physics, dealing with ontology, cosmology, existence, mind, theology, etc. Insofar as these topics have a correspondence relationship with physical reality (cosmology, perhaps mind), they have since been transferred to physics or other sciences. The rest speak to psychological issues, like what we make of existence subjectively, or whether we feel authored by gods or demons.

    Metaphysics does not in itself imply realms beyond the current one in any way, though there are plenty of hypotheses in that direction. If one accepts for the moment that our minds operate on this-world principles, while being able to imagine all sorts of real and not-real worlds, not to mention social, moral and other abstract concerns, then metaphysics can easily be seen as a closed this-world system as well.

    So, to take the example of.. "there may be ways to directly perceive that order in this life too, perhaps by way of mystical experiences" .. perception equates to observation, so this amounts to empirical observation. Fine. So what do mystical experiences tell us? William James was nicely equivocal-


    Firstly, the subjects of mystical experiences are themselves totally convinced by them.

    But secondly, there is no reason why other people should share that conviction: different subjects' experiences generate different messages. ... "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."

    Yet thirdly, the existence of mystical experiences prevents us from rejecting out of hand the possibility of a world beyond our senses. "The supernaturalism and optimism to which they persuade us may, interpreted in one way or another, be after all the truest of insights into the meaning of this life."

    While beliefs abound, the signs here point a skeptic to the conclusion that mysticism is convincing and meaningful because it is a direct hallucination acting upon those areas of the brain responsible for meaning and conviction. Considering our susceptibility to many other illusions, hallucinations, con-jobs, cravings, etc., it would be simplest to hypothesize these as feelings, pure and simple, without further ontological significance. Their susceptibility to the widest range of intellectual construals accords precisely with their being projections from our minds, not signals received by them.

    But whatever the construal, mysticism is empirical material, and whatever it points to will be empirical as well, once it is figured out.

  5. Burk,

    You write: “ That is, [naturalism] posits some realm that you are not responsible to account for in an explicit fashion (i.e. empirically),

    Perhaps you are under the impression that naturalism, on the contrary, is responsible in this sense and can account for the realm it posits (namely a mechanistic reality producing all objective data we have) in an explicit/empirical fashion. Well, in reality there is no explicit/empirical evidence for naturalism. If you disagree then please suggest what that evidence is.

    Either [the supernatural realm] is truly "beyond" the empirical world, and thus doesn't impinge on it, or else it does impinge on it, and through those effects can be observed.

    In my previous post I gave several examples of how the supernatural realm, without impinging on the empirical world that science studies, can nevertheless impinge on us – even in this life. It seems you take it as granted that if something impinges on us then it must be empirically detectable, say by using some scientific instrument. But the only reason one might take this for granted is if one begs the question and assumes the truth of naturalism and its assumption that we are just a part of the empirical world. And even if one thus begs the question, the above is not granted as evidenced by the fact that science cannot even detect whether we are conscious beings or not, never mind whether all people of normal eyesight have a similar experience of the color red (see the inverted color paradox).

    however odd, [quantum] phenomena are part of this real, empirical world, thus can not be fobbed off on supernaturalism or other orders of reality.

    I agree that quantum phenomena are part of the empirical world, but I don’t agree that they are odd. They only appear odd (to put it mildly) if one assumes that the reality that produces them is naturalistic. Very smart people have thought for almost a century now about how to describe a naturalistic reality that would give rise to such phenomena, and the only solutions they have come up with are wildly implausible, as they violate some of the three extremely plausible principles I described before (such as there is just one of each one of us around). Well, when naturalistic descriptions of reality fail so dramatically to account even for observational facts, perhaps one should look for supernaturalistic descriptions.

    While beliefs abound, the signs here point a skeptic to the conclusion that mysticism is convincing and meaningful because it is a direct hallucination acting upon those areas of the brain responsible for meaning and conviction.

    Even it were the case that mystical experiences are hallucinations of the brain, this would be irrelevant to my case. You claimed that a supernatural realm, even if it exists, could not possibly affect us, and I pointed out that one possibility of how a supernatural realm, if it exists, could affect us is through the direct perception of it.

    And in any case there is no evidence that our consciousness is produced by our brain in the first place. Let me here quote well-known new atheist, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris: "The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it" (“The End of Faith” page 208).

    But whatever the construal, mysticism is empirical material, and whatever it points to will be empirical as well, once it is figured out.

    Well, this is not the sense of “empirical” we have been using. Imagine that after we both die we find ourselves being flown towards heaven by angels, and me telling to you: “See, Burk, the supernatural realm does exist”. It wouldn’t do if you then responded: “No it doesn’t. This is just the empirical world, after all we are experiencing it.

  6. A couple of points that may be of use in this conversation.

    Let's start with some Kant 101. Kant made an important distinction between the "noumenon"--that is, the thing as it is in itself--and the "phenomenon"--that is, the thing as it is experienced by us. And he argued (I think persuasively) that what is directly present to consciousness (the phenomenon) is a construct, constituted through our relational engagement with the things in themselves (the noumena).

    The details of his understanding of how the phenomenon is constructed (when human consciousness imposes the "categories of the understanding" on the manifold it receives from the outside) is less important than the basic point: The field of phenomenal experience, what Kant called "the empirical world," is not something purely "out there" but is in large measure a product of the nature of human consciousness imposing itself upon and thereby making sense of what it is receiving from the outside.

    And this is true of ALL possible objects of experience and hence of knowledge: they are always and necessarily PHENOMENA. We can in principle have no direct experiential access to things-in-themselves, or noumena, which are in this sense "transcendent."

    But we are not merely knowers/experiencers of the world around us. We are also real entities. And this means that there is a "me as I am in myself"--a noumenal self--which I AM, even if the self that can be an object of empirical styudy is merely the phenomenal self. The self as an object of knowledge is not the self as I am in myself, but merely the phenomenal self, the experienced self that is constructed by the engagement of myself with what the self is receiving when it makes of itself an object of inquiry.

    But what I bring TO the world of empirical experience--that which I "project" onto the consttruct that is empirical reality, has its origins in the noumenal self--a fact that led Hegel to question Kant's claim that the noumenal is ENTIRELY inaccessible. There's a sense in which we have an access to the noumenal SELF in a way that we do not have access to any other noumenon--because when we make of ourselves an object of study, the phenomenal self that is constructed is the result of the activity of the noumenal self constructing what it receives from the noumenal self. The resulting "dialecting" between the "in itself" and the "for itself" made piossible, for Hegel, a gradual discovery of the noumenal nature of the self--and by implication, of the nature of reality as it is in itself.

    Schleiermacher made a similar move, but for him the key was that we could simply BE oursleves, and in a sense "feel" or "intuit" ourselves IMMEDIATELY, rather than in the mediated way that makes us into a phenomenal object.

    So what are the lessons of all of this? First, it is controversial to say the least to think of empirical investigation as purely objective and as being free from our own subjective contributions. Second, it is controversial to say the least to think that taking the subjective projections of the self onto the field of experience as offering no insight into the fundamental nature of reality. Indeed, it may be our best pathway to noumenal reality. Third, there may be a meaningful distinction between empirical experience and other modes of "experience" (which might be better described as "immediate apprehension" or "intuition" or "feeling."

  7. Sorry if that is underexplained. My children were climbing on me and clamoring around me as I was writing.

  8. Hi-

    Second, it is controversial to say the least to think that taking the subjective projections of the self onto the field of experience as offering no insight into the fundamental nature of reality. Indeed, it may be our best pathway to noumenal reality.

    I'd differ with that most strenuously. There is no question that we are trapped in a noumenal self vs reality. I agree, and we all are trying to get to the bottom of how that self operates. There was a good interview with the mind philosopher Thomas Metzinger that brings this up and I'd recommend it.

    First, there is literally no limit to these projections. The number of projecting theologies, superstitions, etc. is mind-boggling, and re-invented by each child all over again. If one were to assign these experiences veridicality, why do philosophy? What would be the point? How does one make distinctions? The answer is precisely the method of science, which is the careful sifting through noumena to model phenomena. .. on a comprehensive basis, applied to all noumena.

    For all our desires to intuit reality "immediately", it always comes to grief (analytically speaking) because the brain spends most of its energy as a big echo chamber, talking to itself and spinning scenarios. There is no way to get around the work required to deduce phenomena properly, as opposed to the ease of experiencing noumena.

    Second we do learn alot from them, but that is about the noumenal process/interior, not outer reality, let alone "the fundamental nature of reality". People doing Ayahuasca experience the wildest and most meaningful projections of how fundamental reality works, and then they come back to earth. The idea that this kind of thing is veridical is incorrect on a simple empirical basis- every element of these imaginings is incorrect when re-evaluated more carefully- A. with those sober minds of ours most closely evolved and tuned to interact with reality, and B. with the other intellectual and technical apparatus we have so painfully accumulated to calibrate and verify those interactions.

    So, I would challenge you to start a research program on what mystical experiences are really telling us. Isolate what is going on in the brain when they occur, figure out how they are activated, whether by mediation, chemical means, bolts from the blue, etc, and then evaluate how frequently they correspond to "reality", as tested by either empirical means, or in extremis, at least logical consistency. Presumably the supernatural remains logical (? I believe Aquinas maintained as much?) The preliminary results I am hearing don't bode well for any kind of external source or any kind of veridicality.

    Perhaps you are essentially going in the direction of Jung, who revolted against Freud's dismissal and denegration of these mystical experiences, finding in them the richest ore of human unconscious contents and therapeutic potential- indeed, the investigation of noumenal, not phenomenal, reality, as you hint at in the quote. If so, you would be going in a productive direction!

  9. Burk--You seem to have misunderstood my previous comment in several ways. It should be obvious to the careful reader, I think, that I was NOT saying that we should just trust in some willy-nilly fashion that every projection of the subject onto the field of experience is "veridical." I was saying that what the subject brings TO the field of experience may be our only CLUE to the noumenal realm (the realm of things in themselves). Every empirical investigation (including an empirical investigation of, say, the brain) is ALREADY a construct produced by the representational activity of the subject (and as such involves things that the subject bring TO the field of experience). Empirical investigation thus can only tell us about phenomena, and if we want to learn anything about the noumena we must not merely look inward, but look inward in a way that is radically unlike empirical investigation (since all such investigation involves subjective representation and thus becomes an investigation of phenomena as opposed to noumena).

    Since what I'm trying to say is very Kantian (but inspired in large measure also by critics of Kant who adopted his ideas but were hopeful that one could move beyond the limits of inquiry that Kant imposed), it occurs to me that a deeper explication of Kant's philosophy may help.

    First of all, given Kant's noumenal/phenomenal distinction, science is wholly phenomenal "all the way down."

    You describe the method of science as "the careful sifting through noumena to model phenomena. .. on a comprehensive basis, applied to all noumena." I assume you mean the reverse--that it is a careful sifting through phenomena (things as experienced) to model noumena (things as they are in themselves).

    But Kant's point is that no empirical investigation, no matter how systematic and careful, gets us into the noumenal realm. Science is entirely about offering the most generalized and systematic account possible of the empirical world--a fully adequate account of how the empirical world works, the patterns and regularities which characterize it, the basic constituents of it and their interactions, etc. But the empirical world thus studied by science is precisely the world of phenomena. And that world emerges by the relational engagement of the subject of consciousness with the realm of things in themselves.

    Kant takes space and time, for example, to be the "forms of the intuition"--that is, the basic means whereby a consciousness organizes what it receives from its receptive connection to noumena. Whether there is any such thing as "space" or "time" in the noumenal realm is, for Kant, an entirely unanswerable question--because answering it would require that we get at the thing as it is in itself rather than the thing as it is for us--but to "get at" it would mean to represent it: to make it a thing "for us," that is, a phenomenon rather than a noumenon. Anything which can be an object of perception, understanding, or knowledge is therefore inextricably a product of our mind's representational activity, and thus is a construct that is in a part a product of what the conscious subject BRINGS TO experience.


  10. Hi, Eric-

    Sorry- I completely blew the noumenal / phenomenal classification in my last comment.. will write more carefully next time..

  11. So, when a neuroscientist studies the brain, every single thing the scientist learns "about the brain" is, from this Kantian view, something the scientist is learning about the phenomenal object, the thing AS REPRESENTED, something that exists in space and time (forms that consciousness employs to organize experience), is subject to causation (one of the "categories of the understanding" that the conscious mind bring to the relational engagement with noumena), etc. There is NO possibility of getting at the noumenal self by studying phenomenal objects. To think otherwise is, for Kant, to make the unwarranted assumption that there is an identity between phenomenal objects (objects as represented to us through the organizing and interpreting work of consciousness's concepts and categories) and nounenal ones (things in themselves)--an assumption which CANNOT be warranted, because to warrant it would require comparing the phenomenon with the noumenon, which would require unmediated access to the noumenon.

    Kant's view was that the realm of noumena could not even in principle be an object of study or of knowledge, and that all knowledge was therefore only and exclusively knowledge of phenomena. And so he thought that science--which investigates the empirical or phenomenal world--offers the only kind of knowledge we can have: knowledge of phenomena. But science cannot escape the phenomenal realm, and the models it gives us are not attempts to model noumena. They are, rather, attempts to represent the phenomenal in the most unified, precise, and general terms possible.

    One the basis of this framework of thought, Kant was highly critical of earlier metaphysics, insofar as he saw these metaphysicians as seeking to do the impossible: describe reality as it is IN ITSELF. When it comes to knowledge, we should limit ourselves to the world of representations, that is, the phenomenal world. And so, he thought, it is only science which can offer knowledge--but what it offers knowledge OF is not noumena, but phenomena. It can never tell us what we are like IN ourselves, but only what we are like AS OBJECTS represented to ourselves THROUGH the mediating influence of our most basic concepts and categories. Since he took it (although this could not be a knowledge claim, since it was about what transcends the empirical world) that humans all shared the same basic kind of consciousness, he took it that on the most basic level we represent experience in the same way. Hence, the empirical world is a SHARED world. But it is not reality as it is in itself, about which nothing can be known.


  12. But knowledge, for Kant, was about receptivity. And there is another side to human beings--the active side. And although he did not think we could have any KNOWLEDGE of the noumenal self, he thought that to make sense of our immediate intuitive sense of ourselves as free (not causally determined) beings capable of acting on the basis of reason (that is, capable of moral agency), we must POSTULATE things about the noumenal self--and about the noumenal realm more broadly.

    The rough form of his argument here was this: "Morality has such and such features. In order for there to be such a thing, the noumenal realm must be a certain way. So, that the noumenal realm IS this way is a necessary postulate for the possibility of morality and moral agency." But there could, for Kant, be no investigation INTO these postulates, and so they could not be matters of knowledge. But insofar as the possibility of morality depended on affirming these assertions about the noumenal, he was prepared to affirm them--on the basis of what we might interpret as a pragmatic devotion to the possibility of morality (a kind of "faith").

    Schleiermacher was deeply influenced by Kant but was also critical of him. He agreed with Kant that any time we seek to study, understand, and gain knowledge, the objects of consciousness are inevitably a product of the receptive and active sides of the self: we the self receives data and then actively constructs a representation for itself. But he thought there was a kind of mental space which we could occupy, in which these active and ordinary receptive faculties became quiescent.

    We could, in a sense, just BE. And there could be a sort of consciousness of what it is to BE what we are that is NOT a turning inward of the empirical/investigative faculties that bring all our conceptual hardware to bear. That is, there could be a direct, unmediated experience of the noumenal self.

    Whether he's right about this--and what kind of meaning we should attach to discourse that is ABOUT this experience--is another matter altogether, which I won't explore here.

    Anyway, I'd better stop commenting on this post and get to the grading and line memorizing (!!!) I need to do.

  13. Hi, Eric-

    Thanks for laying out some of the Kantian background. I think the basic noumena/phenomena distinction is fine and unexceptional. Indeed, naturalists generally wouldn't even dream of assuming noumenal knowledge, since that has theistic roots- the imaginary position of being god.

    On the other hand, there seems to be a conflation of noumenal knowledge and self/subjective/consciousness going on which doesn't work at all. Here is what one external site has to say about the issue ...

    "The self as it is in itself is called by Kant the noumenal self. And according to his principles it surely must be considered 'free'.

    An influential tradition of later writers taking their inspiration from Kant took to their hearts the idea of the real self hidden deep inside a person, as it were, but cut the umbilical cord which had to begin with given this conception its essential nourishment. That is, they completely abandoned the Kantian principle that there was something powerfully undescribable, something radically unthinkable, about this self. Once given a kind of articulation by Kant, the noumenal self was seized on by this tradition and talked about a very great deal. In Schopenhauer it became the Will. In Hegel it is not just the human being that has an inner hidden self, but whole cultures or 'peoples', whose destiny lies in the gradual expression of their inner selves. In Marx, the inner self was the thing which was denied fulfillment by the various social frameworks which characterised human life in history, and whose fulfilment would mark History's end."

    The noumenal self is an ill-considered concept smuggled into the Kantian system from theism, which was then naturally seized upon by theists and all sorts of other cranks and mystics for the age-old validation of inner promptings as "realer than real". Which then led downhill to monumental harm in later years. Jung also was a worshipper of the "Self", as god within. One gets the impression, indeed, of this strand of mystical philosophy as being heavily narcissistic.

    To paraphrase my Republican friends, it is time to scrap this idea and start over with a clean sheet of paper! I'd suggest we start from the Eastern ideas of no-self: that if you look deeply enough, there is no there there, just a jumble of experiencers and experiences. Neuroscience is telling us the same thing- that consciousness is the greatest illusion, cobbling modules from far and wide into a rather tenuous, ever-changing illusion of continuity. Sufferers of Capgras syndrome may even deny that they themselves exist, in reply to Descartes!

    To think that we can access noumena by figuring out what we "bring" to phenomenal perception by way of our unconscious baggage also seems totally misguided. Our unconscious baggage is a rich pool of archetypes, instincts, movies half-seen, etc. It expresses who we are, but not what reality itself is. We are real, as real as any phenomenon- but not real-er. Even if there were a sliver of noumenal reality to the very experience of subjectivity, what's the object of that real-ness? It is merely our psychological fixations and emotions.. perhaps the most arbitratry and lowest level of any noumenal ontology.

    So it is time to start over and realize that introspection and mysticism are far less veridical than phenomenal perception, our brains being built to perceive the outer world most clearly rather than any inner world. The immediacy of subjective experience remains unaccounted from the outer perspective, but that doesn't make it accurate, let alone "noumenal", just immediate. When we suffer a cut and it hurts, the feeling is immediate and perhaps intense, but is a very carefully orchestrated and conjured perception due to our evolutionary engineering. It isn't a philosophical truth.

  14. Eric,

    You bring up some great points. Another way to think about this is to note the modern/postmodern divide. In fact, I think it is probably the Continental philosophical side and the postmodern that has brought the needed critique of Kant that you speak of.

    The “facts” and empirical evidence are always interpreted facts and evidence and they can be interpreted equally from a theistic or atheistic faith. So we get nowhere when one side says, “Well I’m basing my view on the facts and evidence while you are basing your view on faith alone,” which is exactly what Burk would have us believe. Of course such a notion is utter nonsense.

  15. Burk,

    You are correct that numerous theologians and philosophers after Kant, althogh they accepted Kant's noumenal/phenomenal distinction, thought that the self might provide a kind of unique access key into the noumenal realm (for reasons I've gestured to in comments above). It is also true that some thinkers misappropriated the idea of an inner self without taking to heart Kant's dire warnings against the possibility of making of it an object of knowledge.

    But not all who appropriated this Kantian distinction and saw the self as a kind of key we might use to access (at least in SOME fashion) the noumenal realm were guilty of the latter error. And I don't see why efforts to "turn this key" should be abandoned or dismissed in advance, even if many of these efforts are bound to be failures. After all, if there is any possibility of catching glimpses of the noumenal through some kind of unique reflection on the self and its activity, we won't find out unless we honor and consider the efforts of the greatest intellects that have put and continue to put their minds to that task.

    It seems a major dimension of your argument is rooted in little more than a distaste for religion. In effect, the argument seems to be this: Efforts to get at the noumenal self tend to lead to religious ideas. Religious ideas are bad. Therefore, we should abandon efforts to get at the noumenal self.

  16. Eric (or, since Eric seems busy at the moment, anyone else who groks his book, Hume, or Kripke),

    I just finished reading chapters 5 and 6 of your book. I follow the Liebnitz/Clarke cosmological proof as it shows that, given the principle of sufficient reason, the sufficient reason for the contingent universe as a whole must be a necessary part of the universe beyond the contingent part of the universe. And I follow from your prior chapters that, if there is a transcendent universe, then it is not accessible to empirical science. But what I don't quite follow is how you get from proving that A) there is some part of the universe that is necessary, to proving that B) at least some of that necessary part is also transcendent/non-empirical.

    You seem to accept Hume at his word that anything imaginable -- and thus anything empirical -- is contingent. If true, that would fill in the gap. But is Hume's proposition true? It does not seem obvious to me. And to the contrary, didn't Kripke's Hesperus/Phosphorus argument show that not all necessary truths are a posteriori? If Kripke is correct instead of Hume, then might not some necessary, empirical truth might satisfy Liebnitz sufficient reason for all the empirical, contingent truths of the universe?

    So yeah, basically, I'm just hoping someone can clarify that bit of the argument for me.

  17. Hi, Eric-

    I hope there is more to my approach than that. Indeed the issue is that "noumen" and "noumenal self" come from religion, not that they go to religion. If they had any basis in reason or reality, that would be one thing. But as far as I can tell, they don't- their bases lie in the assumptions of theism, coupled with the naiveté of the wonderful illusion/process that is human consciousness. Just where will all these speculations go when consciousness is figured out and put on a material basis? If you go around telling people about the "veridicality" of these things, there really should be a basis.

    If a well-founded idea or fact led to religion, or all these derivative ideas, then that would be great. I would bow down with the best of them. But the more you look, the less you find, whether hell, self, evil, free will, scripture, or the many related concepts.

    Thanks, and I will stop now.

  18. Burk,

    Since you think free will an illusion and false, what are you doing in this or any other conversation? As you willfully make your arguments, are we to believe you have no choice and, in fact, could be making the same argument for theism if only you had been programmed differently? And if so, then who cares?

    Rather, I sense in your arguments the same a-priori “distaste” for religion noted by Eric that has little to do with the “facts” or evidence. I am reminded of someone’s summing up of the, especially, “new” atheists’ basic assertion: God does not exist and wow do we hate him.

  19. Jarod--Good question. Yes, the move from "There is something that exists necessarily" to "There is a transcendent being (something that transcends or falls outside the limits of empirical experience)" relies on the Humean observation that anything we can imagine to exist is also something we can imagine not to exist, and so something whose existence is not necessary.

    As I put it in the book (p. 130), "As Hume points out, the observable world is one in which the question of existence is always separable from the idea of a thing. No matter how much we combine and recombine the basic ideas derived from sense experience...we'll never come up with something which could not have failed to exist."

    It should be noted, however, that there is a difference between necessary TRUTHS and necessary BEINGS. My neo-Humean thinking here pertains to the latter: no amount of combining and recombining of empirically derived concepts to form the idea of an entity will ever generate the idea of an entity whose features/properties imply existence. That there are PROPOSITIONS whose truth is necessary without being analytic does not entail that there are empirical entities that exist necessarily.

    Does that make sense--or am I missing something?

  20. Well, I'll manage to get lost a couple dozen more times, but you may have removed a major roadblock, so thank you.

    I ultimately seem to diverge from your way of thinking when I allow one possible overarching sufficient reason to be a necessary truth (such as set of yet-to-be-refined natural laws) that isn't necessarily an entity (whether or not God exists, necessarily or as a matter of fact); whereas, I expect you would say any necessary truth that isn't an entity is just a description, not an explanation, and that I'm actually reaching my blik by rejecting PSR.

    If that seems like a fair interpretation, then here's my next roadblock. You used Anselm's ontological argument not to prove God's existence but at least to show how God's existence would not need further explanation. The greatest conceivable being, if it exists, must have the property of necessarily existing. Therefore, such a being explains its own existence.

    It seems to me that that argument could apply equally to the universe if the universe operated under natural laws that fully express God. Transcendence isn't necessary, because the greatest conceivable universe is one which there is nothing beyond. The only thing that could make a Godly universe conceivably greater is if it necessarily existed. Therefore, the greatest conceivable universe, if it exists, must exist necessarily. Therefore, such a universe explains its own existence.

    An alternative way to look at it might be that its existence is explained by the necessary truth that the greatest conceivable being will necessarily exist. From your own perspective, aren't we then merely describing what the greatest conceivable being would be like if it existed? The distinction between description and explanation, then, seems like just a matter of blik, not a matter of logic. In that case, as a matter of logic, it doesn't seem like I must reject PSR in order to say that a necessary truth (such as a set of natural laws) may explain the universe. Maybe they only describe the universe, but description and explanation are logically equivalent.

    My own blik leans heavily towards a non-transcendent Godly universe that explains itself. Since it is Godly, I tend to see the universe as being fundamentally on the side of good in itself. I express yet-to-be-discovered moral-natural laws as a personal God rather than mere laws because I suspect it is objectively good to do so given their result, just as I suspect it is good to treat humans as people rather than mere atoms. And such a God is worth worshiping. So my blik seems to come very, very close to your own, only without requiring transcendence. But then, I'm sure now that I've laid it out, you'll be able to point out some flaws in my reasoning. I must admit, the idea of transcendence appeals to me, though no more so than does the flying spaghetti monster. It sounds cool, but I just don't buy it. But then, I should probably read the rest of the book before commenting any further.