Friday, September 11, 2009

Atheism and Conspiracy Theories

On this eighth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks there are still plenty of people who would rather believe that it was an enormous conspiracy carried out by the US government or Jews or whatever. Such claims are, of course, completely ridiculous, not to mention deeply offensive. The best one-stop shop debunking them is Screw Loose Change and the best essay doing the same is the one published by Popular Mechanics. Other refutations, more in line with the seriousness these theories deserve, have been done by Cracked and South Park. I place 9/11 conspiracy theories on the same intellectual level as theories that the Moon landings were fake or that the Holocaust didn't really happen.

In a recent debate with Alvin Plantinga, Daniel Dennett claimed that belief in God is also this absurd. I would argue that it actually goes the other way: atheism is, in a sense, a conspiracy theory. I'm not referring here to the ridiculous claim that Jesus never existed. Of course, that is a conspiracy theory, but I'm thinking of the more basic claim of atheism: that God does not exist, that there is no supernatural, that the natural world is all that exists.

I say atheism is a conspiracy theory in a sense because there are important senses in which it is not. Thinking that all the theistic arguments fail or that the problems of theism outweigh those of atheism does not make one a conspiracy theorist. God's existence is not blindingly obvious, so to compare those who disbelieve in Him to those who think there is a secret cabal of evil Jews running the world is, in many ways, inappropriate. So I don't mean to imply that atheism is on a par with conspiracy theories in general; only when looked at in a particular way.

The sense in which atheism is a conspiracy theory is with regards to religious experience. Throughout human history people have had experiences of "something" beyond the physical world. In fact, this is one of the most common experiences that human beings have. The atheist thesis would require us to believe that virtually all of these experiences are completely illusory. I find this about as plausible as claiming that our experiences of the physical world are illusory. Of course there are differences: everyone experiences the physical world while not everyone has religious experiences; the physical world imposes itself on us constantly, while religious experiences are usually temporary; etc. Nevertheless, the sense of the supernatural, of a "beyond," can impose itself upon us to a much greater degree than the physical world.

Some might object that atheists are not positing any actual conspirators, so to call it a conspiracy theory is misleading. However 1) atheists claim our experiences of the supernatural are simply by-products of how our brains evolved. Evolution is responsible for our having these experiences and thinking they're veracious when they're actually not. So evolution is functioning, at least metaphorically, as a conspirator, even though it lacks something that most other conspiracy theories lack -- mindful intent. 2) My focus is not on the cause of the conspiracy theory but on the effect. Atheists, by claiming that religious experiences are a widespread illusion, are making the same claim as other conspiracy theories: 9/11 wasn't what it seemed to be; the Moon landings weren't what they seemed to be, President Kennedy's assassination wasn't what it seemed to be, etc. Of course, many things aren't what they seem, but to simply dismiss the experiences of billions of people as illusory seems no more reasonable than to dismiss all the eyewitness reports that the Pentagon was struck by a large airplane and assert it was a guided missile instead.

Another possible objection is that religious experiences are radically divergent and contradictory, and this should make us skeptical of their veracity. I would argue that 1) the disagreements have been exaggerated. There are, of course, differing aspects of them and even contradictions, but there is also much more agreement than atheists are often willing to admit. 2) The fact that everyone tells the same story (that there is something beyond the physical world) is more significant than the disagreement of the details. It's therefore strange to claim that the answer must lie in precisely the opposite direction. When eyewitnesses give contradictory accounts of a car accident, we are not justified in believing that no car accident took place. 3) So at most the differences between these experiences would justify skepticism toward a particular account, but not to the phenomenon as a whole. 4) Again, this objection would apply equally to our experiences of the physical world. There are accounts of physical phenomena that neither I nor anyone I know has personally experienced. Such accounts can even seem to contradict the phenomena I have experienced. It would not be rational for me to conclude that all accounts of the physical world are therefore bogus, and all the experiences of it illusory.

Because I can, I'll end with a quote by C. S. Lewis.

If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)


Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

19 comments:

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Let me be the first token naysayer. Hope you don't mind.

"Throughout human history people have had experiences of "something" beyond the physical world. In fact, this is one of the most common experiences that human beings have."

The human mind is a virtual reality machine. We have near constant access to its diverse abilities in our sleeping state when we dream. The mind is always preset to objectify incoming experiences and therefore any off kilter day time hallucinatory experience will naturally be a something "out there" that doesn't correspond to our normal environment. Hence you get the world beyond effect and you get it often. If this is your primary commonality, I see no reason not to expect it from a naturalistic point of view. The brain is an imperfect virtual reality machine and we should expect bizarre sophisticated (even value-laden) effects in the population.

"Evolution is responsible for our having these experiences and thinking they're veracious when they're actually not."

While it is normal to want to take for granted the legitimacy of all incoming sense data (and an evolutionary preset of hyperskepticism surely doesn't get the job done), that doesn't mean we should be at liberty to do so uncritically when we see so many examples of what the human mind is capable of that we *can* confirm.

"1) the disagreements have been exaggerated. There are, of course, differing aspects of them and even contradictions, but there is also much more agreement than atheists are often willing to admit."

I'm curious as to what you think those commonalities are or if they differ from what I've addressed above. As is, I think the naturalistic explanation better explains the commonalities and the differences and why we can't verify that say even two Muslims heard the exact same sophisticated speech from an angel. The fact that culturally we embrace this mental side show or even seek to participate in it in monastic ways is not surprising. Why wouldn't we?

If I'm not mistaken, inducing an out of body experience, for example, entails starting off in a "reverse room" scenario where everything in the room you were in is flipped. That could be interpreted objectively as though that's the airlock for some other plain of existence, but in all likelihood, it just means that's what always happens when you do that to your experience. It's like some bug in a video game. It's the same for everyone, but that doesn't mean everyone isn't running the level on their own Xbox.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

In my mind, I'm not worried about having to disprove every single religious experience. I'm waiting for even one of them to be vindicated. I'm not going to spend my entire life never having that level of proof to go on. I guess I understand the allure and the epistemic "why not" approach to some extent, but I don't hate myself that much. :D I'd like to know it's actually true first.

"If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth."

That's one way to look at it. I would argue the wrong way. Just because the metaphysical claims of every religion may be false, that doesn't mean at their root, there's not at least some kernel of truth to how they are satisfying the human condition. Most of the time it's just blown out of proportion. That doesn't make it "all wrong." Not all atheists miss that and it's a shame Lewis did.

I sometimes ask myself what people seem to want when they are free to naturally gravitate unrestrained by rational concerns towards what suits their most cherished values. I think that's why Lewis appreciate fairy tales so much. Religions can tell us something about that though often in just another convoluted way. So you take it with a grain of salt like anything else. As a humanist, I take note, because I try to learn from everything, and look for whatever the closest real world version of it is as at least one more guide in life.

And as Sam Harris seems to advocate, I see nothing wrong with seeking to cultivate the positive end of these experiences. It's your brain. You can do whatever you want with it. I do find that fascinating even if I think it's all together separately in our own heads.

Ben

Karl said...

War On Error,

Just a few things.

The human mind is a virtual reality machine. We have near constant access to its diverse abilities in our sleeping state when we dream. The mind is always preset to objectify incoming experiences and therefore any off kilter day time hallucinatory experience will naturally be a something "out there" that doesn't correspond to our normal environment. Hence you get the world beyond effect and you get it often. If this is your primary commonality, I see no reason not to expect it from a naturalistic point of view. The brain is an imperfect virtual reality machine and we should expect bizarre sophisticated (even value-laden) effects in the population.

If the average human mind was as prone to generating illusory images as you claim then we wouldn't be able to cross the street successfully much less be able to accept eye-witness testimony in a court of law. Not to mention the small little fact of life that none of us can step outside of our own brain and dispassionately view the world around us and if we start second-guessing ourselves by thinking that everything we see that is out of the ordinary is an illusion then we will develop some mental problems.

While it is normal to want to take for granted the legitimacy of all incoming sense data (and an evolutionary preset of hyperskepticism surely doesn't get the job done), that doesn't mean we should be at liberty to do so uncritically when we see so many examples of what the human mind is capable of that we *can* confirm.

Just because the brain can imagine something doesn't mean that everything odd that a person sees is imaginary. And what happens when there are multiple people who witness/experience the same event? Like the religious events in Fatima in 1917 witnessed by seventy thousand people; including skeptics who had mainly come there to laugh at the 'gulibile' religious believers?

I'm curious as to what you think those commonalities are or if they differ from what I've addressed above. As is, I think the naturalistic explanation better explains the commonalities and the differences and why we can't verify that say even two Muslims heard the exact same sophisticated speech from an angel. The fact that culturally we embrace this mental side show or even seek to participate in it in monastic ways is not surprising. Why wouldn't we?

There is plenty of literature detailing those similarities, some of which are articles written in peer-reviewed scientific journals, out there. The fact that you haven't seemed to have read them doesn't exactly bode well for your ability to reliably judge these subjects. Oh, and if we get two people to agree on what was said between them and a third party it means the conversation never happened? I am sorry, but that strikes me as an intellectually lazy way of dismissing something. I mean if two eyewitnesses in a court case disagree on what a robber said that doesn't mean the robbery didn't happen.

Karl said...

In my mind, I'm not worried about having to disprove every single religious experience. I'm waiting for even one of them to be vindicated. I'm not going to spend my entire life never having that level of proof to go on. I guess I understand the allure and the epistemic "why not" approach to some extent, but I don't hate myself that much. :D I'd like to know it's actually true first.

And we are still waiting for science to provide proof for the String Theory, multiple universes, the Higgs Boson, dark matter/energy, memes and about a hundred other little things. Hell, Kurt Godel's Incompleteness Theorem shows that we can make true statements that cannot be proven to be true in mathematics of all things. So what exactly is your point? Isn't it something of a non-sequitur to say that "Proposition A can't be tested so we are therefore justified in ignoring it or believing some other proposition?" Just because an idea cannot be tested does not make it false. It also does not excuse you from the consequences of making a wrong choice in the matter.

Suppose I tell the police that someone is planning to kill you and they ask me what evidence I have. I reply 'none' and they say that they would rather wait until better evidence comes along and vindicate my statement before taking action you could very easily wind up dead.

That's one way to look at it. I would argue the wrong way. Just because the metaphysical claims of every religion may be false, that doesn't mean at their root, there's not at least some kernel of truth to how they are satisfying the human condition. Most of the time it's just blown out of proportion. That doesn't make it "all wrong." Not all atheists miss that and it's a shame Lewis did.

A lot of atheists, in fact I would dare say the vast majority of them, do. Yeah, there will be exceptions but Lewis was speaking from his own experience and from reviewing the common arguments that atheists tend to advance in support of their positions so his point still stands. When debating with a group people tend to address what ninety-eight percent of them believe not the two percent with a slightly different opinion.

I sometimes ask myself what people seem to want when they are free to naturally gravitate unrestrained by rational concerns towards what suits their most cherished values. I think that's why Lewis appreciate fairy tales so much. Religions can tell us something about that though often in just another convoluted way. So you take it with a grain of salt like anything else. As a humanist, I take note, because I try to learn from everything, and look for whatever the closest real world version of it is as at least one more guide in life.

Unrestrained by rational concerns? Questions like 'does my life have a purpose?' or 'will some part of my conscious survive my own death?' are extremely rational questions. In fact, I would say a failure to seriously engage them would be a hallmark of irrationally. And how exactly do you determine what the 'closest real world version' of it is?

And as Sam Harris seems to advocate, I see nothing wrong with seeking to cultivate the positive end of these experiences. It's your brain. You can do whatever you want with it. I do find that fascinating even if I think it's all together separately in our own heads.

And how is that belief that 'it's all together separately in our own heads' affecting how you view any evidence or arguments presented to the contrary?

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Hey Karl,

You can call me Ben, btw.

There are many things I disagree with in your response, and some unfortunate misunderstandings, but in order to keep things from going all over the place, I'm going to focus on what I think are three prominent issues. Fair enough?

"If the average human mind was as prone to generating illusory images as you claim then we wouldn't be able to cross the street successfully much less be able to accept eye-witness testimony in a court of law."

Peter Slade and Richard Bentall in "Sensory Deception: a Scientific Analysis of Hallucination" apparently have shown that hallucination is fairly normal. Over the last hundred years, between 7 and 14 percent of people surveyed, who did not exhibit any mental illness, reported having experienced hallucinations (excluding those who had them and didn't know it of course). Of these identified experiences, over 8 percent were multisensory hallucinations, and 5 percent involved entire conversations. I don't know about you, but I don't really meet that many people who purport to have significant religious experiences so there doesn't seem to be a whole lot to explain.

"Oh, and if we get two people to agree on what was said between them and a third party it means the conversation never happened?"

That's the complete opposite of what I said, btw. No big deal, but it seems you are reading a bit uncharitably here and in general. I didn't mean to irritate anyone and would appreciate a straight forward conversation about what I understand may be a sensitive issue. I'm just here to represent the other side of the debate, not attack anyone.

"And we are still waiting for science to provide proof for the String Theory, multiple universes, the Higgs Boson, dark matter/energy, memes and about a hundred other little things."

That's true, and indeed we should wait. Is that what you are doing with your interpretation of religious experiences? Rather, I think that's what I was advocating. If good evidence comes down the pipeline in the future, so be it. On *any* issue. I don't think it's my perspective that is inconsistent here. I'm not advocating hyper-skepticism of religion or hyper-credulity of science.

Ben

Jim S. said...

Hi Ben, thanks for your comments. You point to how people can have hallucinations and mistake them for objective physical reality. But my point is that such hallucinations would not provide us with grounds for claiming that all experiences of the physical world are hallucinations. Just because some of these experiences are not veridical it doesn't mean all of them are not veridical.

Religious experiences parallel this. You can say that not all of them can be true (because some have elements that contradict others for example). But to suggest that all of them are illusory is just as irrational as claiming that all experiences of the physical world are illusory because some people sometimes have hallucinations.

You see no reason not to expect religious experiences from a naturalistic point of view. But I see no reason not to expect experiences of a physical world and other people from a solipsistic point of view. The fact that solipsism could account for why we think there are things other than myself (when there really aren't) doesn't give me any grounds for thinking that solipsism is true and that my experiences of the physical world are illusory.

You asked about the commonalities in religious experiences. In the post I focus on the central aspect of these experiences: that there is more to existence than the physical world, that there is something "beyond" it. This is a commonality that these experiences have at their very heart. But if you want more detail, I suggest starting with William James' Varieties of Religious Experience.

Karl said...

Ben,

I am not sure a study where seven to fourteen percent of people surveyed had hallucinatory experiences explains away the fact that nearly fifty-percent of Americans have at least two religious experiences.

Among the most common religious and mystical experiences reported by Americans include protection from harm by a guardian angel (55 percent); calling by God to do something (44 percent); witnessing a miraculous, physical healing (23 percent); and hearing the voice of God (20 percent), according to the second part of the Baylor Religion Survey. http://www.churchexecutive.com/news.asp?N_ID=1501

Besides there is another problem with your argument, you lack a second premise that links and restricts the illusion-giving power of the brain to religious experiences. Otherwise, it is like Peter S. Williams said: your "rebuttal counts equally against all experiences; including those which lead you to believe that human beings have brains ‘capable of constructing “visions” and “visitations” of the utmost verdical power." http://www.arn.org/docs/williams/pw_goddelusionreview2.htm

That's true, and indeed we should wait. Is that what you are doing with your interpretation of religious experiences? Rather, I think that's what I was advocating. If good evidence comes down the pipeline in the future, so be it. On *any* issue. I don't think it's my perspective that is inconsistent here.

Most religious people actually do evaluate the evidence and look closely at reported religious experiences. The Vatican even has a group of investigator-priests that look to all miraculous claims reported to the Roman Catholic Church. Of the thousands of reports they receive each year, only a small handful are determined to be genuinely miraculous. And I noticed that you didn't exactly define what you would consider 'good evidence.'

Anders said...

Reply reg. religious experiences:

Undoubtedly many people have religious experiences. An important question is if all religious (if any religions) experiences also indicate a communication with the Creator of the universe. Many devotees of all religions would answer that the religious experiences that the followers of the other religions have only are brain constructions, and that they are not indicators of a communication with the Creator. Or could it be that the followers of all religions originates from the Creator; which would imply that the contradictions and conflicts among all religions reflect an intrinsic and internal cognitive dissonance and dysfunction within a self-contradicting Creator? We will go through some basic formal logical argumentation about the Creator to be able to answer that quest.

Being logically consistent (orderly), the perfectly-orderly universe must mirror its Prime Cause / Singularity-Creator—Who must be Perfectly Orderly; i.e. Perfect. Therefore, no intelligent person can ignore that our purpose and challenge in life is learning how we, as imperfect humans, may successfully relate to a Perfect Singularity-Creator without our co-mingling, which transcends the timespace of this dimensional physical universe, becoming an imperfection to the Perfect Singularity-Creator

An orderly Creator necessarily had an Intelligent Purpose in creating this universe and us within it and, being Just and Orderly, necessarily placed an explanation, a "Life's Instruction Manual," within the reach of His subjects—humankind.

It defies the orderliness (logic / mathematics) of both the universe and Perfection of its Creator to assert that humanity was (contrary to His Tor•âh′ , see below) without any means of rapproachment until millennia after the first couple in recorded history as well as millennia after Abraham, Moses and the prophets. Therefore, the Creator's "Life's Instruction Manual" has been available to man at least since the beginning of recorded history. The only enduring document of this kind is the Tor•âh′ —which, interestingly, translates to "Instruction" (not "law" as popularly alleged). [Source: www.netzarim.co.il]

Religions that contradict Torah, therefore, are the antithesis of the Creator.

If you accept formal logic and science you agree with this formal logical proof. Continued reading of how to relate to the Creator you will find in this website: www.netzarim.co.il

Crude said...

Jim S.,

I think what you're talking about here has application vastly beyond what you've limited the discussion to (particularly the supernatural, something 'beyond' our natural order, etc. And I think the difficulty of defining 'supernatural' rigidly is a major problem.)

Teleology and design, for example, don't necessarily involve something strictly supernatural. Yet the idea that the natural world exhibits telos, design, etc is both common throughout the world. The reply? It's just an illusion. And keep in mind that arguing 'evolution!' doesn't answer this question, because evolution itself was (and for many, still is) seen by some as exhibiting teleology and purpose right from the start. (I'm speaking here of Alfred Russell Wallace's views, etc.)

So the atheist conspiracy theory isn't just that so many people have had inklings, strong or weak, of an existence, purpose, or force beyond our own world. But that within our own world, 'nature' is tricking us left and right in the most fundamental ways. Indeed, if we go to extreme ends, it's also tricking 'us' into thinking we have substantial selves, free will, consciousness, objective moral codes, etc, etc.

The most reasonable, modest position available based on these considerations (and I say this as a Catholic) does not seem to be atheism, or even bare agnosticism, but a skepticism that includes being skeptical of naturalism as well.

sceptic. said...

I had always understood that any serious examination of self-reported 'religious experiences' showed that they were of such enormous variety as to be totally inconclusive about anything.
1) Have these experiences indicated whether God is Catholic or Protestant (let alone Jewish or Muslim) or whether He is not much concerned either way?
2) Why is it only Catholics who seem to get visions of the Virgin Mary?
3) How do the religious experiences of Hindus relate to those of Christians?
4) Has any religious doctrine, not previously accepted as such in Christianity, been passed on solely through a religious experience.
What makes a religious experience is what human beings have defined as a religious experience so the argument becomes circular. It has proved impossible to distinguish between 'true' and 'false' religious experiences although I am glad to see that the Vatican ,overwhelmed by the number of visions there have been of the Virgin Mary,rules out those in which she expresses any theology that conflicts with Catholic doctrine. That,in itself, shows the problem.
See further the late and much lamented Miles Kington's Council of the Gods articles - in which, for those who don't know them, he shows how the Gods disagree on every issue that comes before them.

Karl said...

Sceptic,

Let me point out a couple of things.

1) Have these experiences indicated whether God is Catholic or Protestant (let alone Jewish or Muslim) or whether He is not much concerned either way?

First off, this question personifies the appeal to ignorance logical fallacy since you are pretty much saying that since the religious experiences don't answer all of our theological questions or settle all of our religious debates they must be false or at least viewed with doubt. The problem is we rarely have all the answers, as any good scientist will tell you, and the fact that a religious experience didn't answer all the questions on religion ranks about the same in terms of significance as a physics experiment not answering all the questions we have about quantum mechanics.

Second off, both Catholics and Protestants are Christians; they both worship the same God, they just have disagreements about how to go about it. And by the way, that God is the same for Jews and Muslims because Christianity, Islam and Judaism are Abrahamic religions: they all worship the God of Abraham. And obviously He cares otherwise we wouldn't be having these religious experiences.

2) Why is it only Catholics who seem to get visions of the Virgin Mary?

They don't, Protestants and East Christian Orthodox followers also report seeing her. But why would you even ask this question? Just because some parts of the world's population have never witnessed something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I am pretty sure the vast majority of people in the world have never seen a rouge wave a hundred feet high appearing out of nowhere on a calm day; would they be justified in claiming such waves don't exist?

3) How do the religious experiences of Hindus relate to those of Christians?

Jim has already provided one book that details that: William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. I am pretty sure a trip to the local library can provide you with more.

4) Has any religious doctrine, not previously accepted as such in Christianity, been passed on solely through a religious experience.

Yes, and I am pretty sure the theology department at your local university would be happy to provide you with many examples. But just for a short answer: Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all founded after their founders had received visitations from God or angels.

What makes a religious experience is what human beings have defined as a religious experience so the argument becomes circular.

I don't quite follow. Of course human religious experiences are going to be defined by human beings; we are the ones experiencing them after all. That is like claiming scientific theories are circular arguments because what is a valid scientific theory is defined by scientists.

It has proved impossible to distinguish between 'true' and 'false' religious experiences although I am glad to see that the Vatican ,overwhelmed by the number of visions there have been of the Virgin Mary,rules out those in which she expresses any theology that conflicts with Catholic doctrine. That,in itself, shows the problem.

Actually we can distinguish between true and false religious experiences to a fairly reliable degree. That is what those Vatican investigators do on a regular basis.

sceptic. said...

Thanks,Karl. I shall wait around for my experiences and I am quite happy to get one from an angel or the Virgin Mary is God is too busy elsewhere. I shall, of course, check any statement from the Virgin Mary with the Vatican. Does the Vatican investigate experiences by Protestants as well or do you have to be a baptised Catholic before you ask?

bemused said...

I can't quite see how Karl can equate religious experiences to scientific events. A rouge wave is only accepted as it has been recorded and defined empirically. A scientific explanation can be tested and, again, backed by empirical evidence. Karl obviously accepts that there are true and false religious experiences but, short of asking the Vatican, how would he ever decide between the two? If one is into books, is there a book listing genuine religious experiences and how to recognise them. While God, angels, etc, may not have given the answer to every question, which ones have they answered?
It is good to know that God does not seem to mind much which of the Abrahamic faiths one is committed to and shows himself to members of all. In the old days one was taught that hell fire beckoned if one changed , say from Catholicism to Protestantism or vice versa.

Karl said...

Sceptic,

Thanks,Karl. I shall wait around for my experiences and I am quite happy to get one from an angel or the Virgin Mary is God is too busy elsewhere.

You might never get those experiences. But then again, you will hopefully never experience what nuclear war is like either. That is what I have tried to tell you, just because you don't experience something doesn't mean it isn't real.

Does the Vatican investigate experiences by Protestants as well or do you have to be a baptised Catholic before you ask?

The Vatican is concerned primarily with Catholics; Protestants have their own agencies to investigate these claims. After all, the American FBI doesn't exactly conduct investigations in China.

sceptic. said...

Well,you live and learn, even without any religious experiences of one's own. I had heard of the Vatican authenticating miracles, I had never heard to the Vatican and other Protestant agencies authenticating religious experiences. I hope they agree among themselves, it would be depressing to have yet another area where different Christian denominations squabble with each other over who is closest to the truth.

Karl said...

Bemused,

I can't quite see how Karl can equate religious experiences to scientific events. A rouge wave is only accepted as it has been recorded and defined empirically.

Actually sailors reported them for centuries and the mainstream scientific community dismissed them as superstition, a sailor's yearn and an excuse for bad seamanship. It wasn't until the 1990s when one hit an oil platform and was recorded with scientific instruments did the idea of rogue waves become accepted. Still didn't change the fact that mainstream scientific community dismissed them as superstition, despite reliable eyewitness testimony, when they were very much real.

This wasn't the first time this happened, in the 1700s and early 1800s mainstream science regarded meteorites the same way they currently regard UFOs. The point I am trying to make is that you may need a large amount of empirical evidence to believe in the existence of something. However, that something doesn't need to provide you with a whole lot of empirical evidence to exist in objective reality.

A scientific explanation can be tested and, again, backed by empirical evidence.

Really? Then why did Dawkins use the idea of multiple universes to try and counter the argument of design, declaring it a more scientific explanation, despite the fact it has no empirical evidence to support it and cannot be tested? In fact, there are quite a few ideas popularly accepted in the mainstream scientific community that have little or no evidence to support them and cannot be tested.

Karl obviously accepts that there are true and false religious experiences but, short of asking the Vatican, how would he ever decide between the two? If one is into books, is there a book listing genuine religious experiences and how to recognise them.

I could, for example, look at the numbers of witnesses or people that claimed to have experienced said event. One or two people might be lying or deluded but when you have a hundred, a thousand or better yet seventy thousand people, like the number at Fatima, claiming to have experienced the events then the idea that all of them are lying or deluded gets a lot harder to swallow. This is just one of the numerous ways to evaluate the validity of a religious experience. Other ways would be checking the consistency of the witnesses stories and checking on their individual medical and mental history.

While God, angels, etc, may not have given the answer to every question, which ones have they answered?

You haven't read the Bible, Koran, Torah and talked with a priest, rabbi or Imam have you?

It is good to know that God does not seem to mind much which of the Abrahamic faiths one is committed to and shows himself to members of all. In the old days one was taught that hell fire beckoned if one changed , say from Catholicism to Protestantism or vice versa.

God does what He thinks is best. In fact, you could view the three Abrahamic religions as three brothers bickering and arguing over how to best please their Father, even though He loves all three and really wishes they would get their act together. And while there are fanatics who threaten and do worse in the world's religions there are just as many secular fanatics out there who do the exact same thing.

Jim S. said...

Crude: you're right, my claim has a wider range of applicability than I give it here. Another example would be moral experiences, that some things are actually right or wrong.

Sceptic: you wrote "What makes a religious experience is what human beings have defined as a religious experience so the argument becomes circular." But the same thing holds of experiences of the physical world. You cannot verify any experience by appealing to another experience, since if the former needs further evidence for its justification, so would the latter. We can't justify our experience of the physical world in a way that doesn't presuppose that these experiences are largely veridical. Yet -- and this is the whole point -- we would have to be crazy to seriously deny that these experiences are veridical. My claim is that this point applies equally to religious experiences as it does to experiences of the physical world. Such experiences are properly basic. Just as we don't have to find additional grounds for our belief in the physical world beyond the fact that we experience it (especially since there are no other grounds), so we don't have to find additional grounds for our belief in the supernatural world beyond the fact that we experience it.

You also suggest that the divergence of these experiences renders them suspect. But I could make a parallel argument about the physical world. Some people report that bodies of water are still and unmoving; some that they are huge with giant waves which move toward the shore; some as narrow and moving through a channel; some as moving through a channel, but with some waves, but which are not moving toward the shore; etc.

Bemused, you wrote "I can't quite see how Karl can equate religious experiences to scientific events. A rouge wave is only accepted as it has been recorded and defined empirically. A scientific explanation can be tested and, again, backed by empirical evidence." As Karl has pointed out, this is often not the case. Nevertheless, the point is that scientific theories can only be tested if we assume the more basic premise that our experiences of the physical world are generally veridical. We cannot prove this premise by appealing to repeated experience of the physical world, since all such experiences are precisely what is at issue. But, again, one would have to be crazy to seriously question that our experiences of the physical world are largely veridical.

You also ask "While God, angels, etc, may not have given the answer to every question, which ones have they answered?" Well, how about "Is there a God?" "Is there a supernatural realm?" "Is there more to reality than the physical world?" Isn't that kinda sorta the whole point of my post?

Finally, regarding rouge waves: would that be a rogue wave in the Red Sea?

David B. Ellis said...


When eyewitnesses give contradictory accounts of a car accident, we are not justified in believing that no car accident took place. 3) So at most the differences between these experiences would justify skepticism toward a particular account, but not to the phenomenon as a whole. 4) Again, this objection would apply equally to our experiences of the physical world.


It seems pretty obvious that religious experiences (where they have any definite content at all, visions and the like) are more like dreams and hallucinations than like our sensory experiences of the physical world. A person is seeing and hearing things the people around him, if any are present, don't see or hear.

How that is more like sensory experience than hallucination is hard to see.


The fact that everyone tells the same story (that there is something beyond the physical world) is more significant than the disagreement of the details.


If one person, for example, sees his past lives in a vision and another sees a vision of Jesus telling him that only by accepting him as his savior can one avoid damnation and another sees Odin telling him that he must die in battle to be accepted into Valhalla, these are not examples of the same story with minor disagreement about details. They're completely different stories which simply have in common that they involve belief in the supernatural.

And, regarding the comparison to conspiracy theorists:

A conspiracy theory, by definition, involves the idea that people are conspiring to deceive others. But what atheists think is simply that supernaturalists are in error regarding what is or isn't the most reasonable explanation as to what caused their experience.

Since when is it like a conspiracy theory to think many people hold a mistaken belief? Are all disagreements with the most popular view now to be called conspiracy theories? The very idea is absurd.

The use of the term "conspiracy theory" employed in this post seems nothing but a transparent attempt to smear atheists by attaching to them, even though it doesn't fit at all, a term with very negative connotations.

Timothy Mills said...

I'm afraid I missed most of the back and forth here, though I had an interesting exchange with Jim on his blog, where he cross-posted this.

I'm not going to add much, as it's all basically been said. I mainly want to disagree gently with David regarding part of that last comment. (Not the first part - I agree that the "agreement" between different religious accounts of reality is fairly marginal compared to the disagreement. And what agreement there is can be comfortably accounted for by human psychology.)

My feeling is that Jim was very careful to circumscribe the definition of "conspiracy theory" that he was applying to atheists. He could not be fairly accused of trying to smear atheists - he believed he had a sound argument justifying the parallel that he saw, and he presented it clearly.

The fact that you (David) and I do not accept his argument does not mean that he was transparently trying to mislead people by using an emotion-laden term.

Let me reiterate, however, that I did not accept the argument. I feel that it can be countered on wholly rational grounds (laid out above and in the discussion over at Agent Intellect), without devolving into unsupported accusations of dishonesty.

On another note, Karl mentioned Fatima. This recent posting at the Bad Astronomy blog describes a similar incident that happened recently in Ireland. It also presents a pretty clear explanation of why such experiences might happen even in the absence of supernatural involvement. It seems clear that the same explanation could apply to the Fatima event.