Monday, October 24, 2011

Attention and Imagination: Some Thoughts on Simone Weil's Religion of Attention

Attention is important. In fact, for the sake of actualizing the full potential of our lives, it may be more important than anything else.

The moments of purest joy in my life have come at those times when I forget about myself enough to pay attention, with absolute purity, to the world in all its beauty. I watch my children at play, and instead of seeing their play through the filter of my own desires and concerns, instead of thinking about how their play is affecting me, I focus so completely on every laugh, ever twirl, that there’s no longer any room for the other stuff.

For my stuff. My son likes to “make smoke” by throwing Oklahoma red dirt into the air. And more often than not I think about the bath he’ll need to take, even though he just had one. And he’ll probably leave his bath towel on the floor, and a dirt ring in the tub.

As simply as that joy eludes me. But sometimes I manage to stop and look, to silence my own stuff enough to let what is out there in. To really let it in, unfiltered by my own stuff. To let it be, for me, what it is.

To pay attention. And in that moment the beauty and goodness of my son, flinging dirt into the air to see it turn to smoke, hits me with heartbreaking power.

I think we tend to underestimate the significance of attention. One reason I love the philosopher-mystic Simone Weil is because she didn’t. For her, attention was a centerpiece of her philosophy. She took attention to be the essence of both love and prayer, and she saw it—not willpower—as the crucial element in self-transformation.

The other day, I was directed to the website/blog of my dissertation director, Newton Garver. Of the occasional thoughts/reflections appearing there, I was particularly caught by the ones that focused on attention. One entry was nothing more than a single sentence from Irish Murdoch: “If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at.”

About half an hour after posting this—perhaps after meditating on it for a time, thinking about its significance—he posted the follow up comments:

Iris Murdoch holds that proper attention both reduces choices and increases freedom. Wow! When we get our minds around that inspired thought, we will have put some distance between ourselves and the stultifying dogmas of our outcome-oriented civilization.

Paying proper attention, which is especially important with respect to other people, means appreciating the inherent reality of what we are attending to. Simone Weil took mathematics or formal logic to be good training for paying proper attention, because it is so difficult in these fields to hide reality under hopes or desires. Seeing other people as they really are is much more difficult than seeing mathematical reality.
In reading this comment, I was struck by how often I am accused, by atheist critics, of failing to attend to reality, of seeing everything through a filter of hopes and desires. Atheists almost inevitably—perhaps irresistibly—perceive religious conviction as precisely this: an exercise in projection, as the outcome of imposing one’s own wishes and cultural prejudices onto the field of experience and staunchly refusing to see the stark reality underneath.

And there certainly is much religion that looks exactly like this—which is undoubtedly why Simone Weil, devoted as she was to a philosophy of pure attention, was inspired to describe atheism as a purification. “Of two men who have no experience of God,” she says, “he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other. The false God who is like the true one in everything, except that we cannot touch him, prevents us from ever coming to the true one.”

And for Weil, the opposite of attention is imagination, which she calls the “filler of the void.” She claims that “if the imagination is stopped from pouring itself out, we have a void.” And the existence of such a void is crucial to attention. Paying attention means establishing within ourselves a space free from our own stuff, our own desires and anxieties and presuppositions and imaginings, a space of emptiness into which reality can flood.

Imagination is the enemy of such attention. “The imagination,” Weil says, “is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.” The true God, for Weil, is not the superman fashioned by our imagination to satisfy our subjective needs, but is, rather, that which floods us at precisely that moment when we achieve this void and thus find ourselves open to reality—attentively present to it—in all its mystery.

In other words, God is what fills us when we love reality for itself, absolutely and perfectly, apart from our preconceptions and imaginings, and no matter how it affects us for good or ill. Weil’s fixation on affliction may be seen in this light: To love reality even in the face of affliction—even when it shatters us—is to relate affirmatively to reality apart from its propensity to serve our desires. In that moment of afflicted love, we have stopped filling up the fissures with imaginings that suit us.

We can understand Weil’s comments about atheism in the following way: When atheism is arrived at based on a rejection of imagination and a desire to attend to the truth, the atheist has thereby adopted the attitude that is essential for any authentic experience of God. And this remains the case even if theistic belief is in important ways closer to the truth about God than is atheism. Even in the face of similarities in appearance, there’s a huge difference between believing an invention and experiencing reality free from the filters of invention. The latter happens when we pay attention. And attention to something means openness to it that is unconditional, that does not wait on its worth, that is prepared to accept whatever comes.

Given much of the history of religion and much of what goes by the name of religion today, it shouldn’t be surprising, I think, that many atheists see themselves as more serious about paying attention to reality than are theists. But it seems to me that both atheists and theists can be bad at paying attention to reality—although, perhaps, bad in different ways. Both can and (probably inevitably) do see the world through the filter of their preconceptions, through the lenses of their desires, through the unconscious reification of speculative imaginings.

Those who imagine an empty room beyond a locked door are just as guilty of filling the room with the products of their imagination as are those who fill it with imagined furniture, or imagined crates. The only difference is that refusal to imagine is easier to confuse with imagining emptiness than with imagining a room full of stuffed clowns. Likewise, those who imagine that there is nothing beyond the boundaries of what science can discern are just as guilty of filling in the fissures with their imagination as are those who populate the transcendent with personality.

And those atheists who immediately dismiss religious experiences of a transcendent love at the root of reality, who immediately cast away such experiences as of course nothing but delusional projection of wishful hopes—well, isn’t it clear that, in confidently attributing imagination as the source of these experiences, they are assuming that ultimate reality can’t be anything like what this religious experience teaches? If so, they are not just begging the question in their dismissal of these religious experiences. They are, more significantly, basing their dismissive assessment of such experience—their conviction that the experience must be rooted in imagination rather than attention—in their own exercise of imagination.

It is not this sort of atheism that Weil takes to be a purification.

I think atheists sometimes adopt a self-congratulatory attitude towards their powers of attention because they—unlike too many religious believers—take very seriously the lessons of science. The fact is that science is built around the effort to pay attention in much the way that Weil describes. For this reason if for no other, those who are drawn to Weil’s brand of religiosity need to take science and its conclusions seriously. There may not be a single “scientific method” that correctly describes all the various things that scientists do—but it is clear, at least, that science pays attention to the empirical world, to its building blocks and to the laws that regulate it.

But it is one thing to praise the attention of a good scientist. It is something else again to conclude that Simone Weil’s religious experience cannot be the outcome of sincere attention, because to treat it as such would require that there be more to reality than what attentive scientists study. It is one thing to say that scientists pay attention to their subject matter. It is something else again to insist that the subject matter of science exhausts what there is to pay attention to.

And there clearly is more to pay attention to. But to make this point, I don’t want to focus on religion. I want to focus on what my former mentor and teacher, Newton Garver, focuses in on: paying attention to persons.

What does it mean to pay attention to a person? A person is a whole, the sum of many parts, and what is most definitive of persons is not our syntax but our semantics (if that metaphor makes sense). I do not pay attention to you if I am focused on the hairs protruding from your nose and the way that they flutter when you exhale. I might be paying very good attention to those hairs, but in so doing I am not paying attention to you.

But the same is true if I pay attention to your nervous system, or your skeletal system, or your brain. If I study you the way a scientist might, I am failing to pay attention to the person. I am focused on the grammatical structure of a sentence, or the word order, or the use of punctuation, or the shape of the letters—not on what the sentence means.

I don’t want this point to hinge on what we think about the relationship between mind and brain. But it certainly is true that I cannot pay attention to a person if I am not paying attention to them as conscious beings—beings who experience, believe, hope, fear, anticipate, plan, intend, do. Subjectivity and agency, whatever their ultimate explanation, are clear loci of personhood. Persons experience the world and act in it. And even if you think that both of these things have their roots in brain processes, it’s still clear that I would not be paying attention to you as a person if I were fixated on understanding the inner workings of your brain.

It is one thing to attend to a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, something else to sit down with one’s music theory background and the score, and study how Beethoven constructed each movement. Both can be worthy exercises of our attention—but in each case, we're attending to something different. Perhaps what we're attending to are aspects or dimensions of a reality that's bigger than we can encompass all at once, in one single act of attention. Perhaps once we engage in piecemeal attention—to this, then to that, then to the other—we can arrive at an integrated attention to the whole that is more complete. Nevertheless, to experience the emergent whole is not the same as to study the parts out of which it emerges.

Loving a person means paying attention to the person—the subject who acts in the world, who grasps meanings and expresses those meanings in both verbal and nonverbal ways. To pay attention to a person means paying attention to what they’re doing, what they’re communicating, how they’re feeling, what they think and believe.

You don’t pay attention to a person if you reductionistically explain them away. You don’t pay attention to a person if your focus, when hearing what they say, is on attempting to understand how they could come to be so stupid. Nor are you paying attention if you’re trying to understand how they got to be so smart. Nor are you paying attention if your main goal is to understand their psychology so you can later manipulate them. Attention is a matter of openness, of having who they are enter into the fissures that you leave room for. This kind of attention does not primarily lead to propositional knowledge. You may not be able to come up with a list of facts about them. Nevertheless, if you’ve paid close attention, you know them.

What such attention to a person allows for is grasping something of their more private experience, as opposed to an array of empirical facts about them. And part of what paying attention to a person involves, I think, is treating what one thereby grasps as important, as meriting respect, even if it isn’t reducible to any empirical fact.

You don’t pay this sort of respectful attention to atheists if you immediately assume that their atheism springs from a desire to be free from obligations to a creator to whom, were theism true, they’d owe their existence. You don’t pay this sort of respectful attention to theists if you immediately dismiss their religious experience as nothing more than wishful thinking.

None of us can communicate our whole selves to each other without considerable work, considerable efforts at self-expression on the one hand, and open, unprejudiced attention on the other. And even then, the communication will be incomplete. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between knowing someone as a subject, however incompletely, and knowing them as objects. It is the latter sort of knowledge that science is after, and insofar as we regard persons with nothing more than scientific attention, we are not attending to them as persons. We have reduced them to mere things in our sight—and however much we may be attending to their parts and processes (including psychological ones) we are not attending to them.

I think it is also possible to attend to the universe in something like the way that we attend to persons: holistically, focused on knowing it as opposed to knowing a litany of facts about it. Is it possible that this sort of attention—which is, I believe, what Weil has in mind when she speaks of prayer—opens us up to an aspect of the universe that is not available to the scientific eye? The universe as subject rather than mere object? Is it possible that this distinctive sort of loving attention is precisely what brings us into contact with the meaning beyond the universe's syntax, the person for whom the universe is an endless form of communication?

There are those who have sought to pay attention to the world in something like this way, and who report the same thing that Simone Weil reported on the basis of her efforts at absolute attention: a personal presence brimming with love.

Dismissal is, of course, easy. Not everyone has this experience. It could be mere delusion. But is dismissal required? By what? By the urgings of our own imagination, which fills up the spaces beyond science’s limits with emptiness?

As I said, sometimes I pay attention to my children while they play. I really pay attention, so fully that I lose myself and my agendas. And it is then that I’m most overwhelmed with the beauty and goodness of what I see. Put simply: In my experience beauty and goodness overwhelm me, they most seize hold of me, when I am least invested, when my desires and dreams and hopes have been pushed back to make a space for what I’m attending to, so that it may flood in. Does it then make sense to say that beauty and goodness are nothing more than subjective projections, that these things aren’t part of reality, that they must be imposed upon reality by me in that moment, even though it seems to be the very moment when my stuff has been most successfully put away?

Why? Is this judgment really rooted in the weight of evidence? Or is it, rather, rooted in an exercise of imagination, one which, again, fills up those dimensions of reality outside the domain of scientific inquiry with gobs of emptiness?

It may, indeed, be very hard for all of us to distinguish between the products of imagination and the outcomes of pure attention. Real attention may be so hard that few of us actually achieve it, even when we tell ourselves that we have. It is possible that my religious experiences (far less vivid than Weil's, but of the same general kind) are the outcomes of my imagination filling up the void, and I'm just telling myself that I'm paying attention? Of course that's a possibility.

But there are other possibilities. And in our efforts to attend to each other, we fall short to the extent that we treat some possibilities as certainties, and others as impossible.


  1. One small quibble:

    "Those who imagine an empty room beyond a locked door are just as guilty of filling the room with the products of their imagination as are those who fill it with imagined furniture, or imagined crates."

    This is false rhetoric. If nothing is known, those who fill the the room are .. filling the room. Those who leave it empty or own up to their ignorance do not fill the room.

    Turning to atheism- all it claims is that we don't have decent evidence for theism, not that gods absolutely don't exist. We plead a formal ignorance and agnosticism, while at the same time observing that the psychological history of mankind is peppered with the obvious creation of gods, (and de-commissioning of gods as well), constituting evidence for their man-made nature. We wouldn't say or care anything about it if it weren't for the countless folks running around screaming that "I know what is in the room!" "For sure!"


    Very well, then you go on to claim super-powers of perception for those who experience the love of the universe, which the dismissive atheist not only fails to share, but fails to imagine is possible. I'm sorry, but this is the oldest trick in the con book. Preacher X tells the crowd that he has seen the promised land, has spoken to the burning bush, has read the golden tablets. When such perception yields actual knowledge, you might have something to say for it. Or even when such perception leads to reliable love, rather than to the charismatic sheep-sharing and cult-following we are used to through history, you may have something to say for it.

    " It is something else again to conclude that Simone Weil’s religious experience cannot be the outcome of sincere attention, because to treat it as such would require that there be more to reality than what attentive scientists study."

    There seems to be a fundamental problem of interpretation and epistemology. There is no question that bare attention, like in meditation practice, is for some a rewarding and spiritually deepening practice. The issue is not that Weil was attending, but the interpretation of what she was attending, if anything. People have had religious epiphanies attending to drinking cups. Do they know more about the universe than before, (i.e have they perceived something real?), or have they rather rearranged their mental furniture and activated a powerful area of their temporal lobe that creates feelings of deepest meaning, without any reality-perception taking place? That is the question.

    And my answer is to ask- what is the track record of these religious epiphanies? They happened for millennia, but somehow all this attention and perception didn't muster any new truths about reality, conventionally construed. No electrons, no quantum physics, etc... always the same thing- love of the world around them, and various parental totems for personification, and often a bit of social domination thrown in for good measure. I think this all points far more consistently to characteristic psychological syndromes than to any kind of "perception". Very positive syndromes generally, but syndromes all the same.

    .. cont ..

  2. .. cont ..

    "You don’t pay this sort of respectful attention to theists if you immediately dismiss their religious experience as nothing more than wishful thinking."

    Oh dear. What now? An uncomfortable pause ensues. If you are faced with a person who is making up imaginary playmates, it is downright enjoyable to attend to them and engage in their world. Perhaps a child, or a mentally ill person. But if the person is a philosopher who writes extensively about how great his philosophy is, how critical and well-thought out his world view, and invites comments, then it is hard to get around the elephant in the room ... that his beliefs in god, heaven, souls, (angels?), and the like aren't just innocent matters of personal idiosyncrasy, but serious matters of intellectual attainment, of pedagogy, and even public policy.

    The way, in the end, to show that the being you set so much store by exists is to show that it exists, not to believe in it with ever greater fervor adn appeals to mystical perceptions and super-powers. The way is to believe in it less, so that you can stand back, take a dispassionate attitude, gather evidence, and weigh it fairly.

    "Is it possible that this distinctive sort of loving attention is precisely what brings us into contact with the meaning beyond the universe's syntax, the person for whom the universe is an endless form of communication?"

    Well, is it? You seem to say yes, I say no. I dare you to show rigorously that there is a consiousness out there to attend to in the sense you claim. Sorry to yet again be dismissive, but this has (yet again) all the hallmarks of wishful thinking. You might as well be healing yourself with crystals.

    "Dismissal is, of course, easy. Not everyone has this experience. It could be mere delusion. But is dismissal required? By what? By the urgings of our own imagination, which fills up the spaces beyond science’s limits with emptiness?"

    Well, this is getting uncomfortable! None the less, someone who sets himself up as a teacher of others deserves to be held to a higher standard than one of compassion, sympathy, even pity. A standard of rigor. If you don't know what is in the room, for heaven's sake keep silent.

    It is one more testament to this characteristic psychological syndrome, that it prompts its carriers to evangelize about their belief, relying on the politeness of the majority, and preying on the susceptibility of the distressed, the young, the seekers who are culturally pre-programmed to assume the best about such charlatanry. Frankly, it makes me ill.

    And surely you would appreciate that visions of your happy children exite feelings of world-is-perfect-ness for reasons maybe having more to do with evolution than with the ontological probablilities of theism.

    For my part, I appreciate that you induce the flow state in me as I attend to and respond to your posts. (Even if my attention doesn't meet your expectations.) It is uniquely stimulating! Thank you very much and sorry for going on. Perhaps I will cease commenting for a while.

  3. Burk, I think your continued appeals to "evidence" are disingenuous. Eric, Dianelos, and millions of others have experiences which to them do in fact constitute evidence. Not scientific evidence perhaps, but the existence of a transcendent consciousness isn't a scientific question. You don't have those experiences, and so don't feel compelled to believe. Fine. But it doesn't in any way follow that their experiences are thus not evidence.

    In science, if in my lab I'm unable to see results that are similar to what many other labs are seeing in a particular experiment, I might be justified myself in not accepting the conclusions of their studies. But I'm not justified in insisting that they are seeing nothing at all because I don't, or that what they are seeing isn't evidence of anything.

    "Evidence" is itself an interpretation. Some see the bloody glove as evidence that the accused is a murderer. Others see the same glove as evidence of a conspiracy by authorities to frame an innocent man. Your demand for "evidence" seems tantamount to saying "You can try to show me I am wrong but only if you interpret facts the way I interpret them". Your game is rigged.

    In the end, experience is all we have. Some experiences are reliably repeatable by other people, some aren't. Eric has spent many thousands of words on this blog documenting the experiences he has had and the conclusions he's drawn from them. And at the end of almost every posting, there is your shrill voice crying "Your experience is irrelevant! Evidence! I must have Evidence!" What in God's name is the point, man?

  4. Hi RonH,

    I can only speak for myself but I think the question of evidence may be unavoidable. Let me try to explain.

    Many (perhaps most) religious claims are personal in nature: one claims that a religious experience has changed her life, or one believes for pragmatic reasons (because it “works”, makes life more meaningful), or perhaps one follows a religious tradition for its social role, and so on. There is no end of variations and, as long as religious claims remain in the private domain, the question of evidence is perhaps best ignored.

    However, if one claims that, as a matter of fact, reality is the way theists say it is (using perhaps religious experience as ground for the claim, to use your example), if one, in other words, crosses the boundary between what is private and subjective to the public arena, then this is a claim about the common reality we all share, about my reality, yours, Burk's, Eric's, everybody's reality.

    What then, would you have us do? I, for one, wants to know what's going on.

    What then? If I thought we should simply dismiss the theists out of hands, I wouldn't waste my time – and yours – commenting on this blog. Would you have me take your word for it, then, accepting that you, and others, have some source of knowledge inaccessible to me? This is certainly a no starter.

    So, if I want to take the theist claims seriously, I have no choice but to look at the evidence, examine it, challenge it and see how credible it is. I don't see how this can be avoided.

  5. Hi, Ron

    As I explained above, assuming that personal experiences of this kind constitute "evidence" is a serious error. Personal experiences cover a vast range of epistemological possibilities, from whole-cloth imaginative fabulation/hallucination to the most attentive observation of reality. What validates the ontological interpretation of such experiences is never the bare experience itself, (in intellectual terms, in contrast to emotional/subjective terms), but a careful sifting of various perspectives, theories, and correlations from attentive observation- with logical inference.. i.e. the usual approach to empirical evidence which everyone takes in every subject apparently except religion.

    So the cry of "evidence" is not just a denialist, dismissive slogan, it is a specific philosophical request to not make things up and call them reality. If you are humble enough to pose your theism as hypothetical- that hope in heaven and all the other periphernalia is "possible" or, truly stretching the bounds of hypothetical, ... "reasonable", then two things are in order.

    First, if one is holding it hypothetically, then the tentativeness of the belief needs to be carried through the entire discussion- Heaven can't be "possible" in one place, and then have whole books devoted to its certainty, inevitability, and delightfulness.

    Second and far more importantly, at some point, one has to be able to take no for an answer. We have heard the same hypothesis, validated by nothing more than fervent personal attestations (along with tall tales and false miracles) forever. Never has it turned out to explain any single aspect of reality, other than our feelings, which incidentally have received far better explanations in the meantime from elsewhere.

    So what do you make of an unproductive hypothesis that has been pushed for millennia, yet never provided any ontological fruit of either solid evidence of its truth or explanation of other real phenomena? Believers have tried mightily, "explaining" the origin of humans, of the earth, of lightning, of the cosmos.. never once has it succeeded. It is time to take no for an answer.

    To retreat to the postion that this hypothesis wasn't supposed to "explain" anything in the first place, but rather to provide us with a rose-tinted "frame" with which to view the world... well, that simply isn't going to wash. Firstly, explanation was very much the point, until its complete vacuity rendered theism scientifically defunct. Secondly, frames are a dime-a-dozen. They can be bought in any book store or obtained for free from any blog. Philosophy searches for truth, not for frames.

    It is not as if we even know there is a handle, a door, or a room, at all. We only know there is nature and the cosmos as we find it. All else is shrouded in complete ignorance/mystery. The only intellectually sound way to approach that situtation is to tentatively poke around for causes while recognizing our ignorance. Not to fill the void with a bunch of clowns.

    .. cont ..

  6. .. cont ..

    "In science, if in my lab I'm unable to see results that are similar to what many other labs are seeing in a particular experiment, I might be justified myself in not accepting the conclusions of their studies. But I'm not justified in insisting that they are seeing nothing at all because I don't, or that what they are seeing isn't evidence of anything."

    This is not true. It is a significant result to fail to replicate. It casts the phenomenon into a he-said/she-said status of doubt. Only when deeper knowledge then emerges about why either the replicator failed or the original experimenter failed (think cold fusion) can we say we understand what was going on and vindicate either side.

    "Your game is rigged."

    I am extremely sensitive to this issue. Creationists take a similar approach of dismissing what scientists call "evidence", claiming that they don't recognize the status of this evidence, and find the whole theory the scientists are pushing literally unbelievable. So you are absolutely right that quality and interpretation of evidence is central & crucial, as is open-ness to forms of evidence that the other side offers.

    But experience is not all we have. We have reason and logic to help us piece together reality based on our experiences .. to sift the wheat from the chaff. However loudly a particular experience may tell us that something is real (think spirits from the ouija board, perhaps, or a mushroom trip), we mustn't let our brains fall out. Mushroom trips may be eminently repeatable. That doesn't help make them more informative. Likewise, large numbers of people have been known to share in various illusions, from the ancient cults to the communists and on to today's right wing economists. Popularity is also not the proper criterion, either.

    To take an example, life after death. There is zero serious evidence for this, even after millennia of hoping. Indeed, there is rather conclusive evidence otherwise: our thinking relies on our brains, our brains disintegrate utterly after death, ergo no consciousness or thought survives death. To see philosophers sitting around claiming how "reasonable" it is to believe otherwise, complete with heaven, hell, and whatnot is an intellectual travesty, harmless enough typically, but pernicious in settings like jihadism.

  7. Hello Burk and JP

    I've been wondering about this one a bit, and I think I disagree. The question at stake seems to be what constitutes evidence, and whether personal experiences like those referred to in Eric's post can constitute evidence.

    I should say they definitely constitute evidence of something, which may well be Ron's point. And , although by temperament I like the idea of dismissing them as evidence of the evolved, physical nature of the brain, logically I think am forced to admit this itself is dependent upon my chosen frame of reference, which tends to be a fairly physicalist one.

    The question becomes, can one construct an alternative frame of reference that copes well with all we know of the physical world, whilst allowing the possibility that religious experience is itself evidence of something beyond the physical? I suspect this can be done, and probably it can be done a number of ways.

    The way that I find most compelling is via pragmatism. If all knowledge is metaphorical in its nature (and evolutionary theory, linguistics and just watching my children all convince me this is a reasonable, evidence based stance) then we might think of reality as the interface between our metaphors and our experiences, that thing that disciplines the former in its interpretation of the latter.

    At this point, what counts as evidence for reality is whatever services that interface, and what we mean by servicing must depend upon the individual needs of the conscious experiencer. What I personally want from my knowledge is a model of the world that provides great predictive power (and insisting upon shared evidence here seems sensible, if the past is any guide) and a model of myself in relation to that world that yields the most satisfying existence. Here, the only evidence available to me, is my own personal experience, although using the experiences of others, be it via literature or religious tradition, seems eminently sensible.

    If we wish to dismiss the latter (and for me far more important form of knowledge) as less real, I suspect we have to do it by inserting definitions of reality that serve our purpose, and without wishing to put words in Ron's mouth, perhaps this is what he has in mind by rigging.

    This may not be entirely coherent, I write it as one only half convinced, but what I like about this blog is that interacting with it forces me to challenge my more comfortable prejudices in this way.


  8. Hi, all...

    Bernard: Well put. Yes, it sounds like you pretty much get what I'm trying to say. Thanks for that.

    JP: I'm not suggesting that theist claims shouldn't be subject to examination... Far from it. If a theist's claims are rooted in subjective experience, it isn't unreasonable for someone lacking that experience to find those claims unpersuasive. But while claims about reality based on subjective experience are admittedly not the same as claims about reality based on empirical experience, I don't think it follows that they therefore mean nothing. "I had yogurt for breakfast yesterday" is not an empirical claim: that statement cannot be proven. It is nonetheless true, even though you have no compelling reason to believe it is.

    You say, "Would you have me take your word for it, then, accepting that you, and others, have some source of knowledge inaccessible to me? This is certainly a no starter." Is it really, though? I read a fable long ago about a lost explorer who stumbles into a valley of people all of whom share a hereditary eyelessness. He claims to have knowledge obtained with his eyes that they cannot have. They conclude that he must be mad, that the source of the madness is clearly his eyes, and so they remove them to "cure" him. Just because his experience was inaccessible to them does not mean the knowledge he gained by it was not true. Even if you find this possibility farfetched, I don't believe you can categorically rule it out. People have experiences that are inaccessible to me all the time. I still find value in discussing those experiences, and considering the possibility that I might learn something from them. You don't have to accept my word that my interpretation of the experience is true. But why must I accept your word that it isn't?

    FWIW, I don't hold that God is inaccessible to you or anyone else. If I understand Eric's description of Weil's point, perhaps you simply have too much imagination... ;-)

  9. Burk: As Bernard said, the question here is on the definition of "evidence". If I read you correctly, only empirical, scientific evidence constitutes real evidence. You refer to religion as "making things up", an "unproductive hypothesis" with absolutely no explanatory power. But I say again: you have rigged this game. You are only open to evidence of a scientific nature, which by definition can only reveal knowledge about nature. You seem to lend no credibility to knowledge gained any other way.

    I only have two things to say about this.

    Firstly, I'm fine with saying that personal experiences of this kind do not constitute empirical evidence. But that hardly means they constitute no evidence of anything at all. Historical events, for example, cannot technically be empirically verified. There is no experiment one can conduct to demonstrate Julius Caesar existed. One can find artifacts that are certainly consistent with his having existed... But he could also have been an elaborate third-century hoax. There is no empirical evidence demonstrating that molesting children is a bad thing to do, although we accept as true that it is. Empirical "evidence" is of limited value in studying history, and even less in areas like ethics and morality. Science tells us a lot about the world, but only about a part of the world. And while it may be an old chestnut, the claim that only empirically verifiable knowledge can be true knowledge is not itself empirically verifiable.

    Secondly (and this is my main reason for commenting originally), if you truly believe Eric is just making stuff up, pushing an intellectual travesty, and utterly failing to apply reason and logic, then why are you participating on this blog in the first place? Is he evil? If so, on what definition of evil (and what is it to you)? Is he just irrational? If so, then aren't you wasting your time by appealing to reason in your comments to him? I've been reading this blog for a while now because of the remarkably high quality of the discourse on it. Folks here are smart, articulate, and civilized. These are characteristics which are difficult to find in internet conversations on the topics that come up here. I get a lot out of reading both Eric's posts and the astute comments that inevitably follow. But you are bringing down the quality of the discussion by continuously insisting that supernatural claims should only be considered if backed by scientific evidence. It's a category error. You remind me of the stereotypical American tourist in a foreign country who thinks his waiter is an idiot because he can't understand plain English. It accomplishes nothing, and implying feeblemindedness on the part of your host is simply rude.

    So this is just me throwing popcorn at your head because you won't get off your cellphone during the movie. ;-)

  10. Burk:
    One more point on the "evidence" question:

    The courts of most civilized countries recognize personal testimony as evidence -- both of eyewitnesses and so-called "expert" witnesses. Not all witnesses are equally reliable, but they are not all regarded as equally unreliable either. If you were on a jury during a trial where the only evidence the prosecution presented was eyewitness testimony, you might well choose to acquit on the grounds that the evidence was insufficient to establish guilt beyond resonable doubt. However, I think most people (and perhaps the law itself) would regard you as irresponsible if you simply announced that you were going to acquit because the prosecution presented no evidence at all.

  11. Hi, Bernard-

    So, do personal deities cope well with what we know of the physical world? Does life after death, heaven, hell? No, they don't at all. Not in the least. What they cope well with are psychological tropes humans have exibited forever, with zero corroboration from reality.

    But yes, when it comes to areas utterly beyond evidence, or that are fundamentally subjective, then let a thousand (artistic) flowers bloom, and hopefully ones with the most pragmatic, humanistic payoffs will be the biggest. Even there, intellectual (dare we say philosophical) rigor requires that we know exactly the kind of foundation we are working on.

    For instance, if one posits fantasies about things one has no evidence for or defensible logical approach to, such as the origin of the universe, (with apologies to the Kalam argument, which I don't think anyone takes as definitive), then one has to be content to label one's speculations as pure hypothesis, not some kind of mystic "knowledge" validated by its fruits in making one's society better behaved and one's family members happier. This kind of thing is pure non-sequitur. Turtle stories are all very well and artistic, but theists actually believe them, which is, well, a bit sad.

    To Ron- Obviously I've said plenty already. You seem to be interested in making a space where scientific hypotheses like life after death, the creator of the universe, etc., can be entertained and pushed without the bother of "empirical" evidence. I don't think that works. If you offer a non-scientific hypothesis, like "I like chocolate", then personal experience is indeed veridical, as Eric likes to say. To each form of hypothesis belongs its form of evidence, or its truth-maker, as Eric also is wont to say.

  12. Thanks Burk

    What about this argument? Human cognition is an evolved capacity. Its framework, a world of time, space and causation/regularity say, is an evolutionary artifact. For simplicity, I'll call this 3D world. We see and understand in 3D because this is the programme we are running. This doesn't imply reality is 3D, the best inference we can draw is that reality is such that 3D cognition can exist within it.

    So, it is an open possibility that reality exists in a richer space (4D world, although I don't mean physical dimensions, more conceptual ones). There are many aspects of reality that simply do not translate into 3D space; we can not measure, dissect or rationally analyse them any more than a slug could come to conceptual grips with a birthday party. So far, so non-controversial.

    Now for speculation. What if some part of ourselves, at a level similar to Weil's attention concept in this post, can perceive aspects of 4D world that can not translate into our 3D language? What if some of our most profound artistic insights/responses are in fact unutterable glimpses of a broader reality?

    How did such a capacity end up in our evolved mind, we then ask? But the question forgets perhaps that evolution is a 3D rendering of a deeper process which we don't understand at all.

    A person who believes in 4D world will tend to interpret their deeper personal experiences in this light, whereas those like you and I, who are drawn to more prosaic interpretations, will offer a 3D spin on such phenomenon. Now, if the world is actually 3D, what you see is what you get, then religious theorists are quite wrong. If it's 4D, it's you and I who are in error.

    The problem, as I see it, is once I clear out my own emotional, narrative based reasons for choosing the 3D option, I find the evidence based approach I would like to insist upon draws its validity from the prior conclusion that the world is in fact 3D.

    If the choice really is this impossible, then pragmatism gains a certain intellectual respectability, doesn't it?


  13. I got it, Burk. Theists are fruitbats. I am in awe of your mad philosopher skillz.

  14. RonH,

    I don't know if this helps but I recently posted something that speaks to many of these issues here:

    I don't want to hijack the conversation so if you do respond--please bring it back here to Eric's blog. If you have been reading Eric's blog for a while--then you know he has some other posts regarding the area of "evidence" which are really good.

  15. Darrell:
    Thanks for that post. I think you and Bernard have both articulated what I was trying to say about the problem of evidence quite a bit better than I did.

    To simply appeal to evidence I think naively neglects to take into account that our narratives/worldviews/interpretive grids themselves affect what we are willing to consider as evidence in the first place. We're all ultimately circular... But as Chesterton said, "A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large." Perhaps size really does matter.

    The fundamentalist preachers of my youth would authenticate by pronouncing "The Bible says...", as if one could access the meaning of the text directly without any bias, preconceptions, interpretation, or assumptions. Burk's pronouncements of what "Science" says are eerily familiar, and I think ultimately fare no better. Planck was a bit more realistic about human limitations in scientific endeavor: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

    Of course, Planck was irrational and didn't understand evidence either: "As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter."

    Silly man with his silly woo-woo.

  16. Hi Bernard,

    I'm not too sure what you're driving at. Certainly the existence of religious experiences is an evidence of something – the question is of what? Here, I don't think there is sufficient ground to accept the theistic interpretation.

    What you write, however, is very important: what counts as evidence for reality is whatever services that interface. This has been studied a lot and we quite know that, left to ourself, we will tend to look for evidence (and interpretations) that confirm what we already believe and ignore others. Confirmation bias (for one) is a well known phenomenon.

    This is why we need to be extremely careful when assessing evidence if we want to overcome these personal biases. And this is also why we should regard introspection very suspiciously as a source of reliable knowledge. Our unconscious brain will stop at nothing to make us believe what it wants us to. As Feynman famously said: The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.

    Not to say that, pragmatically speaking, this is very important. We must distinguish the way we interact with the world and our knowledge of it and this is perhaps the distinction you want to make.

  17. Bernard-

    I understand your point, and it seems to restate Eric's hypothesis that theists (or perhaps only special theists like Simone Weil) have special powers of perception.

    Firstly, it seems on its face a rather difficult argument to make, like saying we are white, you are black and don't bother yourself about trying to find evidence; just trust us that we are superior. It almost as hard as the converse argument made by atheists- "trust us when we say you are nuts".

    As you have been at pains to point out, if there is no public method of validating these private perceptions, then we have a problem. The 4D hypothesis is only one of several available ones, which also include belief in culturally-entrained myths, and highly developed personal imagination following the perennial psychological archetypes, generating new but very characteristic myths. As long as believers can't muster "empirical" evidence that places thus stuff in the realm of public reality, then we who are not so blessed with perception have to follow other threads of evidence to figure out what is going on.

    And we have a good bit of circumstantial evidence. In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man should know what he is talking about. But what do theists do with their time, but disagree about every jot of their doctrines, heaven and hell being but a local example? And how do theists generally justify their doctrines but by their social utility, something absurdly unconnected to the cosmological hypotheses they put forward, yet quite tellingly connected to the psychological wellsprings of alternates to the 4D hypothesis above?

    And I could go into the history of myth, which shows quite thoroughly how universal all these tropes are, how intimately connected to people's psychological needs/settings, and how easily they evaporate once the next myth comes along, indicating that the "pereption" theory is not very accurate. I could also restate the core rationale by which love of the world, life, and one's own family (including ecstatic forms) is rather consistent with evolution of human psychology.

    So I think we have a lot to go on, and this choice whether to believe in 4D or not is not impossible at all.

    Incidentally, somewhat relevant to all this is a recent scientific american story about empirical philosophy. Contemporary philosophy is little more than the assertion of intution, all forms of analysis and empirical engagement having fled to other disciplines. The upshot is that this new approach takes that issue head on and asks, using cognitive science and psychological tools, where do we get these intutions, how variable are they among people, and similar questions. Maybe they are just intuitions, which again, by evolutionary arguments, are way out of their depth when dealing with cosmological issues, honed as they are to social issues.

    I should add that I apologize for impugning people's intelligence. I am fighting a psychological syndrome, which is unfortunately closely intertwined with its holder's sense of meaning, behavior, and philosophies. It affects people at all levels. I think highly idealistic people are prone to highly idealistic / unrealistic ideas. For example, in the 1920's, many of the smartest people in the US were communists. The heart is definitely in the right place, but the cognition is well known to get carried away. If one claims special perceptual powers, one runs the risk of incurring a psychiatric diagnosis, however intelligent.

  18. Hi RonH,

    On evidence, I don't think we are doomed to the circularity you mention.

    What we accept or not as evidence is not fixed in stone. To simply say that, oh, you don't accept my claims because your world view prevents you from using my evidence sounds very strange to me.

    We have a large experience of coping we evidence of all sort and, with time, we have found out that some kinds are reliable and others not.

    There was a time when dreams were considered good evidence, or even predictors of future events. We looked at it, checked it out, and found out that, no, it does not work. Dreams as evidence are out.

    Now we realize that even our memory is very likely to fool us. We know that different witnesses to the same event (in controlled conditions) may give very different, even contradictory, accounts of what happened.

    And, as I pointed out in a previous comment, we are experts at fooling ourselves.

    Now, I suggest that reliability is an essential feature of any evidence worthy of the name. Concerning religious experiences, the central question for me is simply this: how reliable is this evidence? If you say it is, how do you know this? There are certainly many reasons to doubt it.

    This is not idle talk aimed at dismissing your claims, nor is it an a priori rejection of your evidence - in fact, it would be fascinating to know we can access some alternate reality through introspection. But, unless we have ground to believe that this method works, how good is it? And even if it worked once in a while, randomly, it would still be useless: how would we know when it is right?

    Reliability is a very serious issue and I can't help thinking that many theists are a little too casual about this.

  19. Hi Burk

    I think as soon as the 4D hypothesis leaks into specific, predictive claims, in other words as soon as it is translated into 3D language, for debate, analyse, indoctrination, then we arrive at exactly the problems you identify. And think it is fair to point out, as you do, that the majority of religion, the majority of time, does just this. It moves from espousing a particular attitude, to offering a particular set of explanations or imperatives. But the version described in this post, Weil's notion of attention, seems to move in another direction, and as such isn't perhaps vulnerable to these types of criticism.

    If it is about an appreciation of the void, built upon the possibility that such an experience transcends the physical, and if the requirement is to resist the temptation to imagine a world view into the emptiness, be it theistic, atheistic or whatever, and just appreciate the moment for all it brings in its unanalysed state; then I'm not sure I can muster any sort of intellectual objection to that.

    WIth regards to pragmatism, I agree that the line 'this feels good to me, therefore it is true' doesn't appear to follow at all. My question is, don't we use a similar line in our physicalist descriptions of the world? Consistency, predictability, reliability all feel good to me, insomuch as they are highly useful tools, and I value their utility. But the temptation then becomes to slip into the assumption that this utility equates to truth or reality, which requires the inductive leap of faith, taken only because it feels good to do so. Are we not then hoist by our own petard?

    Better I think that we do away with talk of truth altogether, at least when we are analysing such matters, and admit to the version of pragmatism we are employing.


  20. Hi Bernard,

    Why not go further and do without the 4D hypothesis altogether? After all, if we’re not going to say anything specific about the 4D world, what is it for? On thing I can think of is that it serves as a kind of spark, an occasion, something on which to build something else and which can be discarded later.

    Focusing too much on the 4D world (or the unknown about which we can say nothing) may be like paying a lot of attention to the match we use to start a fire instead of enjoying its warmth. After all, it could have been lit in a number of ways. Or perhaps it was always there, burning slowly, unnoticed, needing only a trigger to grow stronger.

    In other words, this may looking in the wrong place, outward, while the real action happens within us.

  21. JP: You're right: reliability of evidence is a serious issue. However, how we determine reliability is itself entangled with our personal perspective. I am perhaps being a bit sloppy with my terms. I guess by "experience" I'm referring more to intutions than specific mystical events. I'll grant that the latter can often reasonably be considered unreliable: did the event involve special mushrooms? Did the stock pick from God fail to pan out? However, this is not proof that all of them are. My memory may be demonstrably imperfect, but that doesn't mean I am necessarily unjustified in assuming my wedding did in fact happen.

    But I'm really more thinking in terms of intuitions about beauty, truth, morality, purpose, love, etc. For example, I have an intuition that there is deep objective meaning in the universe. It's impossible to confirm or deny this intuition scientifically. "The universe has no objective meaning" is an assumption, not a testable hypothesis. If you have an a priori commitment to the assumption, you must conclude that my intuition is an illusion, a spandrel, bad digestion... in other words, no evidence whatsoever. But without such a commitment, I don't think it is at all unreasonable for me to believe the intuition may point to an actual truth. (It does sometimes happen, after all.)

    You're quite free to say you find the dismissal of such intuitions as mere subjective evolutionary artifacts more plausible than any theistic alternative. The question you might want to ponder however is whether you find the dismissal more plausible due to a prior assumption, or you actually made the assumption on the basis of your own... er... intuition of plausibility.

    If you're looking for certainty, then you're doomed to disappointment. Few things in life really are that clear, even in science (witness the first Planck quote above).

    Look, I'm not trying to engage in evidentialist apologetics here. I'm not attempting to convert you to theism... Frankly, I've spent enough time reading this blog to think most of you could cut me off at the knees in a real debate. I'm just trying to defend myself (and theists in general) from blanket accusations of irrationality. (Empirically unverifiable accusations, I might add. ;-)

  22. Hi JP

    Well, for my part I do make do without the 4D hypothesis. I acknowledge it's viable, but it doesn't particularly crank my handle, so to speak. But for those who find that the hypothesis allows them access to experiences they can not otherwise have, I'm not entirely sure why they would want to do away with it. For them, this is where the warmth comes from, to use your analogy. And if the model is fit for purpose in this way, just as our predictive models are fit for their purpose, then the difference is not reliability as such, but rather public versus private reliability. My personal bug bear is the use of the language of public knowledge to describe private knowledge, but this is not the same as suggesting private knowledge isn't highly useful.


  23. Bernard-

    I wrote a long-winded reply, but let me just offer the best bits, using some quotes from Eric's post. Sorry that this is still long-winded:

    " ... isn’t it clear that, in confidently attributing imagination as the source of these experiences, they are assuming that ultimate reality can’t be anything like what this religious experience teaches?"

    One thing Eric is assuming is the idea of "ultimate reality", that is somehow differentiable from "regular reality", and that super-people can get in touch with it. Both ideas are highly questionable. It touches on our very basic human evaluation of con jobs and tall tales, to which the reply should be.. show me the money. How does this differ from homeopathy, dowsing, and any number of other claims? Very little indeed.

    Not only that, but we know very well the insidious capacity of imagination to fill in voids, as happened just above (when Weil assumes god is the void, despite all protestations of pure attending and "emptying"). We have no way of controlling this inflitratration except by empirical discipline, because everything we think of, true or not, scientific or not, is imagination anyhow. My field of molecular biology is a veritable Alice in Wonderland of cartoonish doo-hickies and gizmos- it is phantasmagoric, except that it is validated as true, by way of empirical discipline.

    " Is it possible that this sort of attention—which is, I believe, what Weil has in mind when she speaks of prayer—opens us up to an aspect of the universe that is not available to the scientific eye?"

    A leading question if there ever was one. Knowing the universe as a person. Does it have a face, eyes, expressions? This is the height of anthropomorophism & projection, to recur to psychological themes. It is unfortunate that this argument has to be carried on at this level, instead of a rational one, but that is what the syndrome calls for, apparently. I support the anthropomorphism of animals like squirrels and dogs- they clearly have emotions that we profitably study and attend to. But the "universe"? Show me the money.

    "Does it then make sense to say that beauty and goodness are nothing more than subjective projections, that these things aren’t part of reality, that they must be imposed upon reality by me in that moment, even though it seems to be the very moment when my stuff has been most successfully put away?"

    Yes, I am afraid so. This is absolutely classic, in that Eric thinks that his "stuff" has been put away, in terms of cares and worries, when he is actually staring at his children, whom he cares about more than anything else in the world. His stuff is resplendently right in front of him, and his successful caring rewarded by internal feelings of beauty & goodness. Mr. Grinch looking on might feel quite a different set of emotions and think the universe evil. But the universe isn't doing the caring in either case. Subjective agents are. Humans.

    .. cont..

  24. .. cont..

    Now, to your core question ... is it conceivable that I am wrong here and that Eric's claims are correct? Thus is it reasonable to give private beliefs like this respect as being, perhaps not presumptively correct, but at least deserving of respect out of formal agnosticism?

    An extremely important question. And my answer is that it has to do with the reach and power of the claim being made. My agnosticism extends to all sorts of private feelings and thoughts- whatever you like to eat, that is fine by me. Whatever feeings you have about Halloween or nature, it's OK with me.

    But these interpretations about god are much more than private. They provide the armature for an enormous social and intellectual power structure. They are not just innocent "I believe this, and you can believe that" kind of things. They are infectious beliefs, they infect politics, they infect science, and they infect families. These presumptions that someone (maybe me!) has closer touch with "ultimate reality" is a power statement, knowledge being power. These claims organize communities, and ultimately touch everyone in the society.

    Thus, as Eric has posited previously in a different context, we are forced to make a choice on the matter and test these interpretations closely, by virtue of being members of a (now global) society for which these claims of knowledge/power are momentous. That is why atheists are fed up. That is why standing neutrally by while such bizarrely tenuous (yet weirdly attractive) assertions are made is impossible. Not because as atheists we know them 100% to be false. Nothing is 100%. But because not only is extraordinary evidence required for extraordinary claims, but even more is required for socially powerful claims. What we see is quite the opposite.

    Incidentally, that is the whole reason science developed in the first place- the realization that for all the claims and con jobs, no one really has these putative super-powers, after millennia of raised and dashed hopes. It is only regular, humble, people working diligently and logically in a fully public way who can accomplish the truly super-work of assembling an organized and far-reaching picture of reality. A picture that has left the imaginings and super-power claims of theists completely in the shade.

  25. Hi Burk

    Thanks for the extensive reply. You make a number of points here, and there are aspects of all them I agree with.

    I can't speak for Eric, but I do tend to read him slightly differently than you do.

    One set of evidence employed by theists is that we do appear to be capable of experiencing moments of profound emotional clarity, poetic moments, if you like. People speak of a sense of connection, of moral clarity, of beauty and love. These have been covered in discussion here often. I defend the possibility that these are purely biological/cultural artifacts, and resist strongly claims that without a spiritual context they can have no real meaning.

    Nevertheless, are we forced to interpret these as nothing more than brain-space physics? Or is the alternative hypothesis, that the brain is capable of intuiting higher truths, itself reasonable? Isn't the problem in part that depending upon which backdrop you assume as your starting position, the criteria for assessing the alternatives changes? In other words, are the criteria you and I would instinctively apply (testability for example) valid criteria only if we first assume our mental access doesn't extend beyond the 3D world?

    We tend to say good evidence is evidence that advances public knowledge, but somebody else might argue good evidence is evidence that deepens personal experience.

    Clearly there are limits on how such intuitive knowledge can be applied, and few things are more awful than those who wish to impose their intuitions on others (which is why we must be ever so careful not to be doing that here).

    The power argument you offer is an interesting one, because in essence it's a pragmatic one. Let us not admit this type of truth into the realm of respectability, because of its inherent dangers. I don't know the type of religion proposed by Eric contains these dangers, it strikes me as thoroughly peaceable, respectful and tolerant. But even were that not the case, there is a certain irony in invoking pragmatism at this point.

    And these pragmatic underpinnings are the problem I still face with all of this stuff. I think, when assessing the validity of a viewpoint, we either turn to mysticism or pragmatism to provide our measuring stick. This appears to be as true of science as it is of religion, as far as I can see. Having pragmatist leanings myself, I find it hard to discount those who use the same pragmatism to reach different (religious) conclusions.

    I'm not sure I have a good read on your response to pragmatism, and whether or not you think this is the value that underpins the best science. And it is interesting to me.


  26. Hi, Bernard...
    You said: Clearly there are limits on how such intuitive knowledge can be applied, and few things are more awful than those who wish to impose their intuitions on others (which is why we must be ever so careful not to be doing that here).

    This is an important point. It's generally not too hard to see when theists are doing this, but I think adherents of scientism are prone to it as well -- while refusing to admit that is what they're doing (i.e. eugenics movements of the early 20th century). If we can recognize where we're making intuitive assumptions, I think there's possibility for discussion and compromise in the public sphere. But when shared assumptions differ and one or more participants insists that his or her assumptions are not intuitive but objectively true, no real conversation can take place. The opposition by definition becomes either defective or evil. Compulsion of some sort is generally the next step.

  27. JP,

    If I may comment regarding your response to RonH:

    “What we accept or not as evidence is not fixed in stone. To simply say that, oh, you don't accept my claims because your world view prevents you from using my evidence sounds very strange to me.”

    Well, it may sound strange because no one is really saying that. No one is saying you need to use “my” evidence. What I think we are saying is: Our world-views/narratives cause us (all of us) to “see” and interpret the same evidence differently—including the evidence of personal experience.

    “We have a large experience of coping we evidence of all sort and, with time, we have found out that some kinds are reliable and others not.”

    I doubt there is a single area, where we have found some evidence reliable and some not, where it would impact the truth of Christianity or whether or not God existed. Given that one of the most significant influences for the flowering of modern science and indeed empiricism was the Judeo-Christian narrative, we would no doubt find it was that very tradition that led us in separating out what was reliable or not.

    “And, as I pointed out in a previous comment, we are experts at fooling ourselves.”

    Right. Exactly. If one is unaware of his world-view/narrative of meaning, then he simply plods along thinking, “well of course this is true—everyone knows it!” It is the person who is aware that he is not just noting the “facts” and the “evidence” but is rather interpreting and “seeing” it a certain way who is most not likely to fool himself.

    “Reliability is a very serious issue and I can't help thinking that many theists are a little too casual about this.”

    You are speaking here of course to subjective religious experiences. However, you have to apply the same skepticism to your personal subjective experience of there being no god or transcendent realm. How reliable is it then? According to you, we can then not take your experience very seriously—true?

    You would probably answer, “Yes” and that is why evidence is so important. However, again, no one is saying it is not important; what we are saying is that it is all interpreted evidence-so just asking “what about the evidence?” doesn’t get us very far. I think we have to agree that all of us are seriously considering the same evidence, we all think it important, however we do “see” it differently.

    Another point being missed here is that I don’t believe Eric is saying, “Let’s throw evidence to the wind and just trust our intuitions.” I hear him saying that this type of evidence, subjective experience, is one part of a mosaic of evidence.

  28. RonH and Bernard,

    I agree. Burk’s responses and comments are much more troublesome to me than Eric’s. Burk clearly believes, as noted in the very words he used in his last response, that theists are “infected” with some sort of disease it would appear. He is serious. And, we all know that those with “infections” and disease must be cured. I wonder what that might entail.

    And Burk notes all this, not from a position of admitting he is coming from a meta-physical frame-work/world-view narrative, but from a position of believing he is spouting OBJECTIVE TRUTH. In other words, it is more that I just disagree with you. It is, “you are infected with something and I have the cure and this is as true as saying the sun is hot.” Wow.

  29. Bernard-

    Thanks for taking a critical stance. My response would be that there seems to me a false equivalence in thinking that pragmatic reasons for doubting theism/mysticism are no better than pragmatic reasons defending it.

    A claim X is put forth as describing reality. Indeed, its upshot is that ... by the way, I am in communication with the creator of the entire universe.

    The person putting this view forth says its evidence is entirely private and can't be shared, except by way of belief / faith / accepting Jesus / accepting that he or his guru have special powers of sensitivity and perception that gives them a view into reality denied to the unblessed.

    To a skeptic, this is no evidence at all. Indeed, it smells rather fishy. So the theist puts out a pragmatic piece of evidence: this belief makes me very happy, and makes my family well-behaved.

    The skeptic has no doubt that this belief has these effects (or can have them). That doesn't logically connect with their truth, however. Many things make people happy and well-behaved which are false. Indeed, I think you are being far too generous to characterize these claims as "truths" preemptively.

    So far, we have pragmatic reasoning that really fails to provide evidence for the claim at hand, though it is perhaps reason to let the claim go unmolested if it doesn't impinge on other people's lives. But as I mentioned, the claim of knowing god certainly does so impinge. Even in Eric's very nice version of Christianity, the power of super-knowledge implicitly puts all without such "knowledge" in a disasterously weaker position, epistemologically and ontologically, and eventually socially and politically. One can detect it in the persistent questions about whether atheists can be morally good or appreciate beauty.

    On the other side, we have skeptics faced with this really outrageous claim. They have been given no evidence that is more than tissue-thin. It can not be taken seriously on so-called "empirical" evidence. They have no choice but to look at the pragamtic arguments, on both sides, there being no other ones of any weight offered.

    So to even deal in pragmatic reasons is a kindness, especially towards a philosopher who claims to be interested in reality and truth. And pragmatic reasons, unlike empirical ones, are tied to the effects one sees and values- they are intrinsically subjective. For my part, and pragmatically speaking, if Eric's positions and philosophy were the only issue, all would be fine and good- the excessive claims are doing more good than harm. But he is part of a much larger culture of belief that to me has very bad pragmatic effects.

    So the irony is that the failure of the believer to give proper evidence puts both parties on the pragmatic level, which is where the skeptic saw the issue arising in the first place- as a pragmatic and evolutionarily driven power-grab by the theist, however clothed in "big questions", "philosophy", "truth", and cognitive displacement/projection.

  30. Burk:
    You said: ...which is where the skeptic saw the issue arising in the first place- as a pragmatic and evolutionarily driven power-grab by the theist...

    Two points:
    1) What precisely is your alternative proposal? A power-grab by nontheists? It's starting to sound like you'd only be happy with a society in which theists never engage in public/social behavior of which you disapprove -- i.e. never act like theists. Or better yet, one in which theists don't exist at all? Surely you'd excuse me for being apprehensive about granting credence to an individual holding these views... (Don't make me break Godwin's Law... ;-)
    2) On your own assumptions, what is wrong anyhow with an evolutionary power-grab by the theists? Power-grabbing is what evolution is all about in a purely naturalist world. Theists are just doing what theists do. I've read cases made before (by Scott Atran perhaps?) that evolution has apparently selected for religious belief. You have to admit, it works astonishingly well for organizing large, complex societies. One might even argue that atheism is a less desirable trait, evolutionarily... like colorblindness. (Perhaps you're better off if fundamentalists don't ever come 'round on evolution.)

    The way I see it, if atheists are unwilling to cede any ground at all to theistic belief, then this whole conflict goes Darwinian on us. I don't think any of us really want that.

  31. Ron-

    Very interesting questions. I am also trying to avoid Godwin's law.

    You are right to cite Atran and the evolutionary rationale. We have escaped evolutionary rationales in many other respects- creating peaceful societies that compete in economic rather than military ways, providing sustenance and opportunity to all, including the weak, restricting reproduction, etc. The last place the biological Darwinist wants to find himself is in a Social Darwinist world.

    So I think we can overcome the evolutionary rationales/imperatives supporting theism as well. That is what I thought philosophy was about- finding truth, no matter the psychological valence or the pragmatic effects. If philosophy becomes a search for what works in a social engineering sense, even if that means propagating falsehoods, as Plato was keen on, for instance, then I find it rather problematic.

    At any rate, it would descend into the culture war territory where we find ourselves when we try to bat around the probabilities of theism- necessarily on a pragmatic plane for lack of any better criterion.

    What would I want? I see Europe heading in the direction of prosperous, (Euro meltdown aside), peaceful, and happy non-theism. That looks very good to me. Theistic beliefs don't deserve special ground, and indeed in Europe, people are petrified by the emergence of Islamic theism that shows the usual sweeping claims, social presumptions, and pragmatic dangers of theism generally.

  32. Hi Burk

    It's possible I've been unclear with regard to pragmatism. What I'm interested in, and perhaps it's an obscure point, is what we might mean by truth if not pragmatic value?

    One of the things I like about science is the ability it gives us to ignore the notion of grand truth altogether, and simply judge models on whether they work (in terms of matching and ultimately predicting observations). Our models have about them an essential 'as ifness'. So, treating the gross matter about us as if it is made up of molecules provides us with an interactive capacity we wouldn't otherwise have. But we understand the molecule is itself an abstraction, a convenient metaphor chosen for its pragmatic value.

    From this we might argue that what counts as evidence depends upon the pragmatic needs of the model, and that narrative and scientific models have quite different needs. I can't produce any sort of measurable evidence to back my claim that there is such a thing as great literature, yet the pursuit of great literature seems to me to be a valid and indeed important activity.

    Yet, as soon as I do this, I am undoubtedly engaging in the sort of special access elitism you are rightly wary of. The way around this is to hold out the hope that anybody, properly exposed and trained, can approach an appreciation of literature. We may not all agree on the details of specific examples, and nor should we, but our collective gaze can be lifted.

    Substitute religious enquiry for literature, and what are the implications...

    I'm not sure


  33. Bernard-

    I'd go with the correspondence theory of truth, asking how closely our imagined models hew to empirical evidence. This has great utility, but parts company with a pragmatic criterion when psychological utility leads us into falsehoods, such as in the basic matter of human optimism. I'd rather that my economists were realistic and accurate than optimistic and wrong, even if in their personal lives, such optimism is highly successful.

    I think that great literature is important too- we are in subjective agreement, and may even be able to come up with utilitarian rationales to provide some objective basis. Literature doesn't have to be true- truth is not the measure of all things, only of claimed models of "reality". Nor is a subjective evaluation like this elitist- that only happens when a subjective evalution poses as an objective one.

    That said, literature pursues a truth of its own- of the human condition, as does religion in its articstic/shamanic way. It is only its claim to model reality accurately that is impeachable on correspondence truth grounds. Its claim to be psychologically and socially beneficial is a matter for us all to evaluate on utilitarian and subjective grounds ... which of course are extremely complex and dynamic- probably far more so than the correspondence truth cliams.

  34. Hi Darrell,

    Your comment makes me realize I may have explained myself badly.

    You write: […] you have to apply the same skepticism to your personal subjective experience of there being no god or transcendent realm..

    I make no claim to any such experience: I don’t have any “personal subjective experience of there being no god or transcendent realm” – none. Concerning ultimate reality, I make no claim at all. If this is the locked room, then I have no idea what’s inside, no gut feeling or intuition that I would trust, certainly no private access to a small opening in the wall that would allow me to peek inside.

    So, if one says it's one intuition against another, I must disagree. My attitude is to say we simply have no clue and accept our ignorance. If we don't know,well, that's just that, we don't. There are zillions of possibilities we can think of and zillions more we can’t even imagine. How are we to know?

    If I had to imagine what it is, if I had to stare at the unknown and try to discern its form, I could only populate it with things and images I already know, or some recombination of them. This is what our brain does all the time: filling the blanks. The visual system does this and this is in part how it can be so efficient.

    From what I understand, this is one reason why memories are so unreliable: given an incomplete recollection of an event, our brain will fill the missing parts with reasonable guesses (that conform to our expectations) and these will even become part of the actual memory. This is why sensory deprivation can produce hallucinations: with insufficient input, the brain will make up its own. This is also one reason I wouldn't trust my intuitions about the transcendent, especially if they threw back at me what I expected to find in the first place.

  35. Burk:

    You said: So I think we can overcome the evolutionary rationales/imperatives supporting theism as well.

    What are your thoughts on the best approach here? Theism -- and IMO especially Christianity -- provides a fantastic basis for the value of the individual and his inalienable rights. This basis supercedes the authority of any state (and provided some of the justification for the founding of the US in the first place). On non-theism, there is no higher rights-granting authority than the state, and there is no compelling reason to value individual rights over the state. Several totalitarian regimes have taken advantage of that fact. According to what I've read, game theory teaches us that if players believe cheaters will be caught, cheating declines. Theism postulates the omniscient referee. Nontheism lacks any such thing.

    I'm not sure Europe is a great model here. Post-Enlightenment Europe has been at least as bloody as pre-Enlightenment Europe, and possibly even more so. Large parts of Europe were under totalitarianism mere decades ago. There is significant economic unrest right now, and the demographics (i.e. ageing population and declining birth rates) are not reassuring. A centralized, powerful state can be easier to co-opt by a small but determined minority, so I think many European countries are much more at risk from encroaching fundamentalist Islam. Are atheists really worse off over here?

    If I were an atheist, I think the smart route would be to drop the rigid anti-accommodationist approach of Dawkins, Coyne, P.Z. Meyers, et al (and maybe yourself?). I would concede that in selecting for theism, nature has performed a valuable optimization which can work to my advantage. There is significant risk in abolishing that trait, and insufficient evidence to claim the risk is justified. Besides, it is in my own interest that all the other players believe cheaters will be caught, even if I do not hold that belief. I would ally myself with scientists like Francis Collins, Ken Miller, John Polkinghorne, etc. and philosophers like Michael Ruse and our gracious host. These people stand a better chance of persuading fundamentalists away from their extreme positions, and appear unlikely to constrain my own liberty.

    It would seem to me that adopting a take-no-prisoners naturalism is... well... irrational.

  36. Burk

    I think my aversion to question-begging, which is where so much philosophy seems to take us, may be the defining difference between my agnosticism and your atheism.

    If the correspondence theory of truth, as you outline it here, with its premium on empirical/public data, holds, then it certainly follows that intuition and introspection can not lead us to truth. But, as this is the whole issue in question, this take on truth is indeed question-begging. I suspect the only justification for this particular definition of truth is of the 'it feels right to me' flavour, and that's the point where the agnostic backs quietly away.


  37. Ron-

    I appreciate your thorough acceptance of this evolutionary rationale for theism, which would seem to undermine the point of its belief, by putting it on a utilitarian rather than "believable" basis. That is fascinating.

    For my part, I am no politician, as everyone can tell, and have little interest in agreeing with people who hold mistaken beliefs, when it comes directly to the content of those beliefs, however much we may agree and collaborate on other issues and be committed to civility in general. Even speaking politically, the Francis Collins's of the world would have little to say if the Richard Dawkins's (and Voltaires) of the world weren't beating on the door of thestic presumption and breaking it down.

    And incidentally, Francis Collins is wrong as well- his other virtues don't make his religious philosophy easier to swallow, or validate his mystical cosmology. This is a common problem in religious discussions, how people are given ad hominem benefits for loving their children, having pleasant politics, and the like, as if that lent coherence and gravitas to their philosophy.

    Obviously, we are having a civil discussion and will continue to disagree. I see a virtue in putting the case as clearly as possible when it comes to philosophy, on a philosophically-oriented blog. Can one call out intellectual travesties, meme-infections, and delusions while still remaining civil? That is certainly a fair question. That is why I value a community that makes a special space for philosophical honesty, on both sides. Ultimately, in general life, civility trumps truth, leading in part to the "pass" given to religion generally. I don't disagree with that ordering of values.

  38. Bernard-

    I am not really sure how one can pick and choose one's definitions of truth. If words have any meaning, then true means something that is actual- in existence, not a figment of imagination (though imagined ideas are truly present in someone's mind).

    And beyond the linguistics, the relevant definition is also inherent in the specific claim being made. If I claim that god exists, defined with properties like not being only an idea in my head, but being a being encompassing the entire universe with personality and authorship of everthing.. the truth-maker of that is inherent in the properties put forward. If it turns out to be just an idea in my head, I have been untruthful.

  39. Burk:

    I appreciate your thorough acceptance of this evolutionary rationale for theism, which would seem to undermine the point of its belief, by putting it on a utilitarian rather than "believable" basis. That is fascinating.

    Sorry to mislead. I was assuming a purely evolutionary rationale for theism for the purposes of exploring the implications of what I'm taking to be your own assumption set.

    In fact, I think we (or at least most of us) have intuitions of a transcendent reality simply because there is a transcendent reality there to intuit. That this perception came about through evolution is an idea I see little trouble with. Eyes evolved because there is light to see, and it's highly unlikely they would have evolved otherwise. Similarly, people may have evolved to believe in the supernatural because it does in fact exist and belief in it confers survival value. The presence of these intuitions doesn't prove the existence of the supernatural. But proof of their evolutionary origins doesn't disprove its existence either. I don't find it odd for something to be all of true, believable, and utilitarian. (I get inspiration here from Simon Conway Morris.)

  40. Ron - I understand ... that is an excellent theory.

  41. Burk,

    “If words have any meaning, then true means something that is actual- in existence, not a figment of imagination (though imagined ideas are truly present in someone's mind). “

    “And beyond the linguistics, the relevant definition is also inherent in the specific claim being made.”

    Interesting. You certainly didn’t take that tack when we were talking about “gratitude.”

  42. Hi Burk

    Yes, I agree that if we use the word truth (and I'm one who believes it would be much better if we didn't) we are talking about a thing that actually exists, and to demand flexibility here is to abuse common usage. What interested me was that you made use of the word empirical in your initial definition, whereas of course if the dispute is about whether 4D world is plausible, then we can imagine the transcendent being both true, by the definition you have just given, so actually existing, but not being available to empirical (or public) evidence.

    So, when you wrote '...asking how closely our imagined models hew to empirical evidence' you were, I would propose, begging the question. Truth as you've just defined it, doesn't suffer this problem, but appears to open the door back up for both 4D world intuition, and pragmatic definitions of truth.


  43. Bernard-

    Yes, thanks for dogging me.. you are quite right. If one regards private intuitions and the ensuing testimony as valid evidence, then atheists not only are rigging their arguments, but are downright wrong. I've spent plenty of time rehearsing why such evidence is poor, from numerous perspectives, but if one doesn't buy that, then one will buy other things, surely.

  44. Hi Burk

    And then the implication of all of this is that the credible theism defence contains a fish hook that would ultimately keep me from embracing it. If we are to accept private evidence is a valid guide to reality, then for consistency's sake this needs to apply to all private evidence. I've never really understood how liberal theism then justifies privileging its viewpoint over that of say conservative fundamentalism, as both are apparently drawing on the validity of gut instincts as guides. I don't object to the stance, but I don't pretend to understand it either.

    And this, to jump on my favourite soap box, seems to be where the public/private divide is so important. With public knowledge, no such personal privileging is required because we all reach the same conclusions. We needn't say this makes the relationship between our conclusions and reality more certain, but it does mean we can confidently believe in them without having to denigrate the beliefs of others. Keeping this distinction clear just feels so important to me, and I do think there is often a temptation to fudge it.


  45. Hi Bernard,

    Yes, this is something that has not been explained satisfactorily.

    Given that contradictions or inconsistencies between different groups or persons can be observed, one relying on some form of “personal” knowledge (gut-feeling, intuition, introspection, etc.) seems to be committed to one of the following: (1) my knowledge is the right one – others are wrong; or (2) everybody is right – we each have our own reality; or (3) it's all the same knowledge, it's only we express it differently; or (4) contradictions are only apparent as we see different parts of the same reality; or (5) ???

    None of these seems to work. You have commented on (1) . (2) works only if one adopts a stance of subjectivism (which I don't think theists are ready to do). If (3), then claims should be toned down to a common denominator (and that wouldn't be a form of theism). As for (4), this is intriguing, but unless we have a picture of this whole reality presenting itself in so many apparently contradictory ways, it seems to reduce to a form of subjectivism.

  46. Bernard:

    With public knowledge, no such personal privileging is required because we all reach the same conclusions.

    I'm not sure this gets us very far in reality, since I suspect the most socially/publicly contested issues aren't rooted in public knowledge in the first place. Issues of morality, ethics, and justice generally can't be resolved by simply appealing to science. Once again, the claim that only scientifically established knowledge can be considered true is not itself a scientifically provable claim, and thus has no epistemic privilege over the claim that "all truth comes from God".


    You're missing the most obvious option: I believe my "personal" knowledge is right and others' is wrong, but I admit uncertainty. I believe there is a God, but grant that as a finite being there is really very little I can know with absolute certainty. Clearly the existence of God is not self-evident since atheists exist, so I think the rational thing to do is concede that I might be wrong, however unlikely that may appear to me. Now, this isn't a permanent uncertainty... Under Christianity, one eventually achieves direct and certain knowledge of God (and, generally, so does everyone else). But, for the time being, I "see through a glass darkly" and must act accordingly. How this works out in the "public" sphere is messy, and often "degenerates" into politics (hence the direction of my questions to Burk a few comments back); however,the more diversity we're willing to tolerate in a society, the more we have to simply deal with it.

  47. Ron-

    The important point is that such privileging is only misused with regard to facts, not with regard to preferences. On beauty, justice, and the American way, we can each have our private subjective views and advocate for them as loudly as we want from that (subjective) premise.

    Drawing on one's private criterion to say that one's moral views are objectively correct is just another misuse of the private position, as is saying that theistic cosmology is a fact of some kind. One may be right in one's conviction, for all anyone knows, but insisting on competing, privately derived & confined "objective" ontologies is no way to run a society.

    We can't each have our own facts, but we can each have our own opinions.

  48. RonH and Bernard,

    I agree with RonH. In my view, there is no true public/private divide unless the issue under discussion was whether or not 2+2+4. Since this sort of problem is not at issue, it is irrelevant to keep noting the importance of something that has no bearing on whether or not, for example, capital punishment should be legal.

    The other issue, as noted before, is that public truth was all, at one point privately held matters in a sense- in the areas we are discussing anyway. This is clear from history. At one time in the Western world slavery was held to be a public truth—clear to most that such a practice was a (it was argued) practical and economic necessity and not inherently wrong. That was a “public” truth. But at some point a minority, reasoning from many sources but also from privately held sensibilities, won that argument and their view that it was inherently wrong then became a “public” truth.

    So an assertion of a public/private divide is, in my view, irrelevant to this discussion since, as RonH points out: “Issues of morality, ethics, and justice generally can't be resolved by simply appealing to science…” and historically inaccurate. Beyond those two problems, it is just a flawed philosophical position as it has been called into question by a myriad of post-modern philosophers. The public/private divide, or the assertion of such as a principle, is a peculiar feature of modernity and is hardly taken as a given as it once was.

  49. Hi RonH,

    You are right, I should have added an uncertainty factor to my (1). But this changes little if the uncertainty remains very low (I think this is the case with theists).

    Option (1) still presumes that one’s position is privileged in that it provides a better access to truth than others. Given the fact that others may hold contradictory beliefs with the same confidence, the claim to a privileged position seems difficult to justify.

    However, privileging one’s position makes perfect sense in subjective matters. I may consider (subjectively) some composer to be the greatest ever while others will be indifferent to his music. Inversely, I can readily accept that some music I find unattractive may be very exciting to others. In fact, this may be a sufficient reason to listen to it more attentively.

  50. Hi Darrell

    I think this is the point on which we disagree most. I wonder sometimes if I am unclear on this. Public knowledge, as I think of it, is that ever expanding sphere of relationships which predict the world so reliably that anybody presented with the relevant model will adopt it. So, all those scientific facts, as it were, where we can readily agree upon the best available model. These models will be refined over time, we need make no claim to them reflecting ultimate reality or any such thing, but they are public in the sense that a mechanism for public agreement, and exploration, exists. Post modern philosophers, when questioning public knowledge, as far as I know, suggesting we don't accept the earth is round, any more than you are. In fact they have been known to get a little irate when accused of this.

    Slavery doesn't fit into this model, as it is a subjective, ethical matter, like capital punishment. Currently, there are more people in slavery on the planet than at any time in history; so while I find the practice abhorrent, we can hardly claim this sense of disgust is a public one.

    Ron is right, knowledge of this sort doesn't get us far when it comes to negotiating shared understandings of our rights and obligations. So we do negotiate, from a perspective of tolerance and open mindedness, accepting that others will bring different, and equally valid, values to the table, and from this we must hew some way of living together. Messy, challenging, inspiring stuff.

    Ron, in relation to the stance suggested, of: I believe I am I right but understand that others who believe differently may be right - for me personally this is too contradictory to maintain. Either I think I am right and others are wrong, or I don't. And if I hold I could be mistaken in my beliefs, I don't really think I'm right at all, I just think there's a chance I'm right. In fact I'm agnostic at this point, aren't I?

    Or so it sits with me.


  51. Hi, Bernard...

    You said: Either I think I am right and others are wrong, or I don't. And if I hold I could be mistaken in my beliefs, I don't really think I'm right at all, I just think there's a chance I'm right. In fact I'm agnostic at this point, aren't I?

    Well, I guess you could technically call me an agnostic then. But I don't think that would be a use of the term recognized by most of the agnostics I know. ;-)

    I really do think I'm right. And I really do think atheists are wrong. However, I've "really thought" I was right about things before that I no longer hold to. So from past experience, I know that "knowing I'm right" is no guarantee that I actually am. I must concede that it is possible I am wrong in my beliefs, because to claim otherwise would necessitate knowing that there is no knowledge that could possibly change my mind -- in other words, I'd have to be God, eh? But then, it is also impossible for me to know for certain I'm not a brain in a vat and reality as I perceive it simply doesn't exist.

    Perhaps I should invert Dawkins' position: "There almost certainly is a God".

    BTW, I read Genesis over the weekend. A fine introduction to some interesting philosophical discussion... I'm putting it up on the shelf next to Sophie's World for when my sons are old enough to start tangling with philosophy themselves. Thanks for writing it!

  52. Bernard,

    A curious feature you may be overlooking is that to assert the existence of a public/private dichotomy (as an ought—we “ought” to look at it this way) is not to assert a truth like 2+2=4. It is a metaphysical position. That we should privilege certain ways of knowing over others is a philosophical position—it is not an evident empirical truth. In other words, ironically, the very thing you are asserting comes ultimately from a “private” subjective faith position. It is not testable or empirical in the same way, for instance, that we can measure distance or how hot something is. Such is just another reason I think it a false and unhelpful dichotomy.

    I think we both agree there is “public” knowledge; we just disagree as to how it applies in this conversation and whether or not such knowledge is privileged over other types of knowing (such as the type Eric is suggesting) as it might pertain to the topics in this conversation.

    I also think you may have missed my point regarding slavery. Your assertion that it is a subjective matter like capital punishment is, well, begging the question. Beyond that, I was speaking of slavery as regarded here in the West, not the entire “planet.” My point was that at one time in the West it was “public” knowledge that having slaves was just a necessary and practical economic “truth”. However, over time, those with “private” assertions to the contrary won the day and their “private” truths about slavery (that it was objectively morally wrong for anyone to own another human being) became “public” truth or knowledge and was codified into law. Slavery, in the West, is held to be wrong ethically, for all practical purposes, the same way 2+2=4 is held to be right in the sphere of mathematics. The fact there is more agreement regarding one (the math) over the other is completely irrelevant to whether or not we can consider it “true” that slavery is objectively wrong or that the type of experience Eric is talking about reflects something true or not.

    So, one, I don’t see how your public/private divide (even if we granted its legitimacy) is relevant to the issues discussed on this blog; and, two, I don’t see how this divide matters in the sense that all public knowledge of the type discussed on this blog was “private” at one time. Because we all can agree that 2+2=4, I don’t see how that helps us resolve whether or not the state should execute criminals or allow slavery. To then say that one model (the scientific/empirical) is more accurate in what it can predict than the model we might use to decide the slavery issue is true and entirely irrelevant at the same time because it is a category error. And it says nothing as to whether or not the model we use for determining whether or not something like slavery should be legal is any less truthful or accurate in its own way and sphere.

    Not in a way I can see at the moment, anyway.

  53. Hi Darrell
    Interesting points. I’d claim that the private public distinction only becomes a metaphysical proposition if we then seek to privilege one form of knowledge over the other, which I hope I’m careful not to do. The observations that there is a human compulsion to prefer predictively reliable models over unreliable ones, and that this preference sits at the heart of the scientific endeavour to extend the reach of our publicly accepted model, are empirical claims, vulnerable to attack by counter-example.
    You ask why this distinction matters, and I wonder if we mightn’t find one answer within your slavery example. The question that interests me is, can we see a similar expanding of common knowledge in the field of ethics? Does new public knowledge become embedded with contemplation and discovery, or does the ebbing and flowing of this knowledge rather depend upon context? Personally I think you could argue that some moral knowledge has a public, or universal flavour. For example most if not all people seem to privilege the needs of their own children over those of strangers and this may well be a universal (albeit ignoble?)impulse. Some urges are likely to be hard wired, or at least very hard to shake, and atheists and theists alike will point to reasons why this might be.
    The interesting question, for me, is whether new urges can become compulsory over time, as our knowledge of ourselves and our society deepens, a Hegelian notion I suppose. This is a question best answered by anthropologists. There’s a study of societies with strong codes of honour-killing (forget the author’s name, sorry) that suggests a strong link to the economic context; the better defined and protected property rights are, the less approval there is of honour killing. This suggests a contextual, mechanistic understanding of morality, at odds with the beguiling claim for moral progress.
    The optimist in me is tempted to believe moral progress is sensible and possible, but then I remember Popper’s warning regarding the great danger posed by leaders who believe they are fulfilling their historical destiny in this respect. So, the public/private distinction might be important because of the questions it poses for collective morality.


  54. Thanks Ron

    Yes, this question of what we do with our intuitions when we are faced with others with conflicting intuitions sits at the heart of my agnosticism, and I suspect it's personality based. It doesn't matter how certain I feel about something, when I find somebody with conflicting certainty, and on unpacking I find our certainties are based upon nothing but gut feeling, my certainty dissolves. I don't know whether this is admirably open minded, or simply weak, but it is the way I appear to be made.


  55. Bernard...

    Open-mindedness is admirable, although Chesterton was convinced that "the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid."

    Regardless, it certainly makes you an amiable discussion partner. ;-)