07 January 2013

Little Goodnesses

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
   (Matthew 25:40 ESV) 
I wonder if one of the chief roots of the modern problem of meaninglessness is not, say, lack of self-esteem or weariness of pain but pride. We believe it is our calling to create the greater good, to save the world. But isn't that God's chosen occupation? We are not gods, though I seem to recall reading about a mischievous serpent who promised us that we could be. And occasionally we perceive our non-divinity and despair. "My life is meaningless because I can't do anything worthwhile." The problem here seems not to be our inability to do things of worth but our failure to appreciate what is of worth for us to do.

Our calling is a humbler one than what we have so arrogantly assumed: it is to be faithful in the little things, to establish the lesser good, to perform the good deeds that lay before us. A bottle of water for a thirsty gardener, a helping hand for an ailing old timer, a nod and a smile for a fellow grocery shopper, a dollar bill for a bell ringer, a listening ear for a grieving friend, a skipped meal, a missed episode, a simple prayer instead of an aspiration to a grand one. Little stuff. EASY stuff.

(Inspired by http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/58168.htm)

07 October 2011

The Truth about Knowing

I have spent quite a lot of time, likely an inordinate amount of time, thinking about knowledge and skepticism, and, at the end of the day, knowledge always wins in my mind. As it does in the minds of most other sane human beings, even philosopher-human-beings. But what is interesting to me is that the spoils of this victory aren't actually reaped because of some imperforate argument from reason against skepticism. More on that in a moment.

A common skeptical argument aims to show that since I can't know that some strange hypothesis (e.g. that I am dreaming right now or that I am a bodiless brain in a vat being stimulated by diabolical super scientists to believe that I have a body and live in Southern California or...) is false, I don't really know anything at all. René Descartes is of course the most notorious presenter of this argument (and also perhaps the one most duly noted for his failure to answer it). The trouble with this kind of argument is that it very easily induces a kind of intellectual trance. It invites the unsuspecting undergraduate into its cozy little Tumnusian den, and, after what seem like a few brief moments, she awakens to find herself locked in a world of confusion and doubt with seemingly no way to get back home before the queen of that twisted world comes and claims her mind forever.

But, thanks be to God, ninety minutes pass, and she is back in her world (which may not be real but is at least familiar) of text messages and status updates. The spell is broken. But how was it broken? David Hume would say that "custom (or habit)", nature herself, has asserted itself and forced the formerly bamboozled youth to ignore the flawless demonstration of her ignorance and to go on living the life of a presumptuous commoner. But I say Hume is wrong about that. Not because I think that I can prove I am not dreaming or that I am not a brain in a vat or [name your favorite skeptical hypothesis], but because I believe that there are more ways to know than only by reason. In fact, we only know things by reason in a roundabout way, through inferential processes which are ultimately based on knowledge that is known by heart. Everyone, even the skeptic, assumes an entire battery of basic principles in forming their arguments for this or that conclusion - truths of logic, mathematics, the external world, other minds, the past, ethics.

Skeptical arguments will never be answered by rigorous argument because the skeptics are right! Reason, as they understand it at least, is unable to account for our knowledge that we are not massively deceived. Since reason is thus impotent, they conclude we do not know anything, but they are wrong about that! "We know," as Michael Polanyi says, "more than we can tell" (The Tacit Dimension [1967], 4). Or Pascal:
We know the truth, not only through reason, but also through the heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. The skeptics, who have only this for their object, labor uselessly. We know we are not dreaming, however powerless we are to prove it by reason. This inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, and not, as they claim, the uncertainty of all our knowledge.

For knowledge of first principles, such as space, time, motion, number, is as firm as any we derive from reasoning. Reason must use this knowledge from the heart and instinct, and base all its arguments on it...Principles are felt, propositions are proved; all with certainty, though in different ways. And it is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of its first principles before accepting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before receiving them.

This inability must serve, then, only to humble reason, which would want to be judge of everything, but not to attack our certainty. As if reason alone were capable of teaching us! Would to God, on the contrary, that we never had need of it, and that we knew everything by instinct and intuition. But nature has refused us this good.
(Pensées, S142/L110, Roger Ariew translation, Hackett, [2005], 31)

18 September 2011

My Brain Made Me See It

Did you know that things happen in a person’s brain while he is having a religious (or mystical) experience? Did you know that many smart people think that, since things happen in a person’s brain while he is having a religious experience, his experience is nothing more than a brain phenomenon with no external source or cause or referent?

Did you know that things happen in a person’s brain while he is having a sense experience? Did you know that the same smart people who think that religious experience is nothing more than a brain phenomenon because things happen in a person’s brain while he is having one don’t think anything analogous about sense experience?

It seems that to be consistent with their proposed reason to reject out of hand any and all religious experiences, these people should reject out of hand any and all sense experiences. But obviously that’s to court radical skepticism, and nobody (except maybe a few contrarians who are forced to live either as practical hypocrites or as madmen) wants to do that. So, to be charitable to these apparently inconsistent religious skeptics, let’s try to find the real reason they believe religious experiences to be “all in the head.”

The real reason, I suspect, is probably better thought of as an assumption. The assumption is that the only possible way for human beings to experience external reality is through the senses. I say it is an assumption because it is typically taken for granted, not argued for. But how might the religious skeptic defend this assumption?

Well, she might say that sense experience is the only way that anybody has ever really experienced external reality, and, so, it is safe to assume that it is the only possible way to experience external reality. But that would be to beg the question in a rather obvious way: she is assuming that no one has ever really experienced reality in a non-sensory way. The religious mystic would beg to differ!

A better argument would be like the one offered by Michael Martin in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990), which goes like this: one way to distinguish genuine perceptions from illusory ones is to check them against each other for consistency. While reports of sense experience inevitably vary from person to person, there is almost always agreement among them at a deeper, more fundamental level. One would expect that if people are experiencing the same reality, they would report similar things about it. And, when it comes to reports about sense experience, people do report similar things. But not so with religious experience, asserts Martin. He says that, whereas reports about sense experiences include superficial dissimilarities but fundamental similarities, the exact opposite is true about religious experience. Some people report experiencing the divine as wholly other, others as identical with everything. Some people report experiencing the divine as benevolent, others as full of wrath. And so on. (Actually not “and so on.” In fact, the examples given here are mine; he doesn’t give any concrete examples of dissimilarities, rather just a few vague references to contrary religious truth claims.) So, according to Martin, since reports concerning the divine differ so radically, they are best explained as purely neuropsychological phenomena, not as experiences of divine reality.

Yet, Martin’s argument suffers from major defects. For one, he is far too quick to conclude that seemingly dissimilar religious experiences are actually fundamentally different. Mystics through the ages have been emphatic about their inability to convey the true nature of their experiences in words, and, as is to be expected when one is attempting to communicate the essentially ineffable, one is liable to fall back on basic background assumptions about the nature of ultimate reality in attempt to translate one’s experience into comprehensible language.

A fortiori, recent work by neuroscientists Eugene G. D’Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg [1] reveals that there is a common core to mystical experience.
The essential point in understanding the phenomenology of subjective religious experience involves a sense of unity of reality at least somewhat greater than the baseline perception of unity in day-to-day life (253)

Moreover, D’Aquili and Newberg highlight what they take to be “the most important mystical state, Absolute Unitary Being, or AUB.”
AUB is a state described in the mystical literature of all the world’s great religions. When people are in that state they lose all sense of discrete being, and even the difference between self and other is obliterated. There is no sense of the passing of time, and all that remains is a perfect timeless undifferentiated consciousness. When such a state is suffused with positive affect, there is a tendency to describe the experience, after the fact, as personal. Hence, such experiences often are described as a perfect union with God (the unio mystica of the Christian tradition), or else the perfect manifestation of God in the Hindu tradition. When such experiences are accompanied by neutral affect, they tend to be described, after the fact, as impersonal. This likely results in generating concepts such as the abyss of Jacob Boeme, the Void, or Nirvana, of Buddhism, or the Absolute of a number of philosophical traditions. There is no question that whether the experience is interpreted personally as God or impersonally as the Absolute, it possesses a quality of transcendent wholeness without any temporal or spatial division whatsoever (253).

It seems overwhelmingly likely, therefore, that while devotees of various religious and philosophical doctrines might describe their mystical experiences in diverse ways, their experiences are (at least very often) quite similar.

On a related note, Martin is clearly not interested in considering the notion that there might be a lot more to reality than what is sensuously detectable. How can he be so sure that people don't report experiencing different things because they are experiencing different things? Maybe some experience God whilst others experience angels or demons or some other finite but insensible things. I don’t raise this in order to suggest that this actually happens, but it does seem that Martin would do well at least to consider it. Indeed, though I might be slipping into uncharity at this point, I venture to suggest that Martin’s arguments are simply halfhearted attempts to prop up his basic assumption that non-sensory perception is impossible.

The facts, as I see them, are these: (i) any argument raised against the possibility of veridical mystical experience can be raised with equal force against the possibility of veridical sense experience, and (ii) Martin-style attempts to fault mystical experiences for being hopelessly inconsistent with each other are undermined by the empirical findings of D’Aquili and Newberg concerning the common phenomenological core of mystical experiences across cultures and metaphysical traditions.

A final point of D’Aquili and Newberg is that those who have experienced AUB – among them sophisticated, formerly materialist, scientists – are virtually certain that their AUB experiences reflect ultimate reality more faithfully or fully than their ordinary sense experience does. Granted those are just their subjective reports and perhaps we should take them with a grain of salt, but these folks do have the advantage of having experienced both AUB and “baseline reality” (that is, the world as experienced through the senses) and without hesitation insist that AUB is fundamental. “This being the case,” they continue,
it is a foolish reductionism indeed that states that, because hyperlucid unitary consciousness can be understood in terms of neuropsychological processes, it is therefore derivative from baseline reality. Indeed the reverse argument could just as well be made. Neuropsychology can give no answer to the question of which state is more real, baseline reality or hyperlucid unitary consciousness often experienced as God (256).

My conclusion, therefore, is simply that there aren’t any good reasons to rule out the notion that people actually can and do experience God - or, at least, that the common reasons that I consider above fail the task. The question of whether or not there are any good reasons to think that anybody actually has experienced God I leave for another time or, perhaps, for another person.
1. See “The Neuropsychological Basis of Religions, or Why God Won’t Go Away,” Zygon 33 (1998): 187-201. Reprinted in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (6th Edition). Boston: Wadsworth, 2012: 247-257. Page numbers refer to the Pojman and Rea volume.

03 January 2010

Good and Evil (part 1)

Many of my students seem to think that the existence of goodness is somehow dependent on the existence of evil. They have vague intuitions, that is, that the existence of evil is somehow necessary for the existence of good. Call this the “Metaphysical Necessity View” (MNV). Students often employ this sentiment, or something akin to it, in their attempts to defend God against the charge that the existence of evil (or evil of certain sorts, degrees, or amounts) is logically inconsistent with the existence of God (or at least casts considerable doubt on the idea that God exists). I think these students are wrong: they are wrong both about good and evil and to try to defend the existence of God on such grounds. Another, much more plausible, view lurking in the neighborhood of MNV is what I’ll call the “Epistemic Necessity View” (ENV). This position concerns not the existence of good and evil but knowledge of the existence of good and evil. According to ENV, it is impossible (for humans anyway) to have knowledge of the good without having knowledge of evil too. This position, as I say, strikes me as much more plausible than MNV, though it too seems to me to be mistaken.

The following are some vague thoughts of my own on the matter. My hope is that in the process of writing out these thoughts my (and perhaps even your) understanding of these issues will begin to sharpen.

For this blog, let’s deal with MNV. The advocate of MNV suggests that goodness and evil somehow need each other. Statements like this often contain some offhand remarks about “yin and yang,” though, as of yet, no one has explained to me how that is supposed to help. So, do good and evil need each other? Are they somehow mutually dependent? I don’t know of any good reason to side with mutual dependence folks here. In fact, it seems to me that MNV is among the least plausible theories of good and evil on offer – though perhaps not quite as bad as the “explanation” that good and evil do not exist at all but rather are, say, social constructions or mere subjective feelings about things that have no real connection to the world an sich (“in itself”).

One promising way to criticize MNV is to think about its implications, chief among them that if MNV is true, then it is impossible for there to be a world that is purely good, a world where good exists and evil does not. Is it really impossible for there to be such a world? It doesn’t seem so, at least not to me. Indeed, I have a strong intuition that it is possible for there to be a purely good world. But if there is such a possibility, then MNV is false. It’s an easy argument.

  1. If MNV is true, then it is impossible for there to be a purely good world
  2. It is possible for there to be a purely good world
  3. Hence, MNV is false

I see no reason to reject number 2 except that it conflicts with MNV, but to use MNV as a premise in an argument for MNV is clearly question begging, so that won’t do. What other reason might one give for the impossibility of a purely good world? ...I can’t think of any. (Can you? If so, please share!) So I think it’s reasonable to assume that MNV is false.

(Moreover, if one is a theist – especially a Jewish or Christian theist – then one has another powerful reason to reject MNV: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” [Genesis 1:31]. I’d say that pretty much rules out MNV too. Of course, quoting Scripture probably won't satisfy the agnostic inquirer, but it certainly carries a lot of weight with believers. And why prefer the evidential standards of one who admits to not knowing [cf. agnostic] to the standards of one who thinks she does?)

So much then for MNV…See the next post (coming soon) for a discussion of ENV.

04 October 2009

Three Years of Study in One Paragraph

There's this philosophical debate about whether you need to know you know to say you know. The problem is solved by noticing two ways we use the word know: on the one hand, we say we know when we mean "yeah, trust me, you should believe it too," on the other, when we say we know, we mean "yeah, I'm in touch with reality." So, do you need to know that you know to mean the latter? No. Do you need to know that you know to mean the former? Well, kinda. Probably, we don't know that we know, ever, if you want to be a really niggling bastard about it. But, on the other hand, might we want rules governing when we can say, "yeah, trust me, you should believe it too?" Yes, we might (and we in fact do!). Now, when you see that, you also see the end of another problem in philosophy, the can-I-claim-to-know-anything-at-all problem. Well, if none of us can pop out of our heads to see whether, really, we are in touch with reality when we say, "yeah, I'm in touch with reality," then probably, as a rule, we shouldn't require the ability to pop out of our heads to see whether, really, we are in touch with reality when we go and say, "yeah, trust me, you should believe it too."

God bless and Good morning to you all (Especially my brother Jonathan Wang and Garrett Miller)