Friday, September 24, 2010

In search of a soul

I never had any formal religious instruction as a kid. My folks were Catholic and they took me to church for a while, till I was five or so, but the Mass was tedious and I was disruptive, and anyway by then we started spending our weekends camping. There was also the fact that I was nervous, superstitious kid whose imagination easily and frequently ran away with him, so my mother – probably sensibly – decided that Catholic catechism was probably something I could wait a while to engage (as it turns out, about thirty years).

So in fact my religious education came in a much more casual and modern form. There wasn't much on TV on Sunday mornings in those days and so while my folks were upstairs in the kitchen, I'd be down in the family room, scribbling away on my homemade comics and stories, while Protestant televangelists beamed up out of Maine to fascinate, indoctrinate, and terrify me. It wasn't the fire-and-brimstone stuff that became fashionable in the 80s; back in the 70s, the stuff I was watching, at least, was more temperate. But it was just as unequivocal. I was persuaded that extramarital sex, rock music, abortion, divorce, and a host of other things in life weren't simply unfortunate choices, but were necessarily evil (obviously, since I've singled them out, I've since softened or entirely reversed my views on most of these). Those who believed would go to Heaven; those who did not, no matter how good they were (Jews, Muslims, and others non-believers) would not; something that struck me as unfair and, somehow, ungodly, even as a child; a conviction I never outgrew. It was a black and white world with no room for nuance or question. And it haunted me for years because it was at odds with the world around me, and even the views of my parents, who were moderately liberal.

My parents were always big readers and there were always books around the house. They read to me, subscribed to monthly book plans, and purchased a set of encyclopedias for me in anticipation of my birth. I always lit up with an interest in science. I was also fortunate that I had a school environment where getting into books and science was not looked down upon; in fact, quite the opposite. I distinctly remember that in grade three, a man wasn't a man (in elementary school terms) if he didn't have his copy of Scholastic Books' In the Days of the Dinosaurs. Recess on inclement days involved little cliques of the boys sitting around on the carpet, recreating long-dead giants out of plasticine and dreaming of a lost age. (At that age, who knew or cared what the girls did?)

A lost age, that is, that school told me was real, but religion insisted was not. For a year or two I was in a strange limbo. The world was telling me there were two realities, and they were bridged by the fact that pretty much every adult I knew, and the culture in general, agreed there was a God. God seemed to be the nexus of these two versions of what was real; the fulcrum of some existential seesaw.

I guess I was ten when I got hold of a book I still have. I actually ink-stamped the date on the cover. It's smudged now but it was definitely sometime in September, 1978. It was one of those How and Why books; thin little magazine-sized paperbacks on topics of science and history that, at the time, would set a young inquirer back 79¢. I must have had two dozen of them at one time. What I distinctly remember about acquiring them was how easy it seemed to be to drum up the first six bits... but how strangely difficult it seemed to manage to get hold of those last four cents! But the book in question was called Primitive Man, and it was a wholesale revelation to me. It was my first real exposure to the idea of, and mechanism behind, evolution. That it applied to me, that it made my heritage unimaginably deep and rich, was a powerful idea to me. Thrilling. But maybe most important of all, there was a short section that dealt, very succinctly and tactfully, with the thorny question of religion. The book said that if God created the universe, then evolution was his plan, and it was a beautiful and elegant plan. I think that was the first time I had ever heard the explicit suggestion that religion and science were not mutually-exclusive, and suddenly the fact that adults I knew could accept the things of science and God at the same time. Maybe the preachers were wrong, at least about some things.

And so what was the place of religion in all this? It's surprising to me now that I was thinking along these lines, though I guess everyone at that age must, but I was trying to understand the dynamics of souls and minds, spirits and bodies. I tried to look at it from what I thought was a scientific point of view, though now I can see it was just self-satisfying philosophizing with abstract concepts. By that age, I understood that humans were animals... or rather, I would have said, something like animals; clearly, in terms of our bodies, we were the same kind of thing as dogs and horses, cats and monkeys, and even bugs. But obviously we were something more; we had fire and could talk and we wore clothes and drove cars and flew airplanes across the oceans and had nuclear bombs and went to the moon. Nobody else did those things; nobody else even came close. And why did we have two words, spirit and soul? So I eventually concluded that they had different functions, and the hypothesis went like this: bodies were alive while they had a spirit. This was true of humans and animals. But a spirit wasn't identity; it was more like some sort of supernatural permission or prerequisite to being alive. When you died, it went away, and returned to some sort of pool of spiritual energy to be recycled. But the soul was identity. It was permanent, and it was either a piece of God or something specially made by God. It was you. It used your brain to think and do things, in the same way, I decided, that a computer program runs on the hardware of a computer (yes, we did have computers in the 1970s, just not in every home yet). And when you died, it stayed you. It was what made humans different from all the other creatures. I had no proof of any of this, and I was faintly aware it didn't quite dovetail with the general ideas of Christian thought around me, but I liked what I'd come up with and it satisfied me for a long time.

Eventually I started spotting the flaws in my comfortable arrangement, though. If a soul needed a brain in order to think, then what happened when you died and it left the body? How could it think or know anymore? Wouldn't it become just like a computer program without any computer to run it; just a static piece of paper or an old reel of magnetic tape that sat around collecting dust and accomplishing nothing? But if a soul could think and know things without a brain, then what did it need to ever be in a body for in the first place? And why did people who got head injuries sometimes stop being quite fully human (as I saw it at the time)? How could they lose parts of themselves if "they" weren't the brain that was injured, but the soul that could not be damaged by any physical force?

There were other things, too. The older I got, the more science, and even my own observations, seemed to be finding similarities between us and the other animals, and I began to understand that we really were animals, like the rest, but particularly better than most of them at certain things. But still, I could see that dogs and cats could think, work things out. I used to tease our spaniel by pretending to throw a ball, and eventually he stopped falling for it. So convinced did he get that my attempting to psyche him out was the norm that it got to the point that he'd be surprised when I did throw the ball. But he never hesitated when my dad threw the ball, because my dad always did. And I realized not only had our dog figured out that I was jerking him around, but that I, in particular, as an individual being, was a little jerk. He hadn't just figured out my trick, he'd figured out me. And when I realized that, I understood that our dog was a person, like me, in many if not most respects. Sure, he didn't make fire or read books, but suddenly things like that seemed like just "human" icing on a much bigger and more fundamental "higher animals" cake. In the end, how could I say that someone who could fake throwing a ball had some kind of soul, but someone else who could not only figure that out but reach the conclusion that the guy routinely pulling it was habitually unreliable, didn't have a soul? Ultimately, I had to abandon my proud thesis on souls, brains, spirits, and whatnot.

It was around this time that Cosmos aired on PBS. I think more than any other single person, Carl Sagan unfolded my mind. Cosmos was packed with, as Sagan himself characterized his childhood realization that "the stars were suns, but very far away; the sun was a star, but close up" (facts long known to me by the time Cosmos aired), 'very big thoughts'. I think the most astonishing, on a personal level, was the idea that every atom in my body that wasn't hydrogen was, necessarily, created by fusion inside a star, and that the only reason I had those atoms was that the stars they had once been part of had blown themselves up (indeed, that any element beyond iron actually has to be forged during that supernova explosion itself), and scattered those atoms across space, billions of years before the Earth (itself made up of that debris) had ever existed. Sagan passed along more 'big thoughts' to me on matters of evolution, the history of science, and the physical nature of the universe; the most profound for me being "we are a way for the cosmos to know itself". Nothing before or since has ever made me feel as deeply and fundamentally connected to all the rest of the universe as that one simple sentence. The book spawned by the series cost me about thirteen dollars and was the first hardcover book I ever bought for myself. If could pass just two things along to some future generation to restart civilization, one would be Cosmos, and the other would be the English language by which to understand it.

Cosmos, I think, formed the first solid foundation for my skepticism in the supernatural. I also remember being further illuminated in my mid-teens by Desmond Morris's Manwatching, which used comparative anatomy and baviourism as everyday observable evidences for evolution and the relatedness of all life on Earth, and, around the time I started university, by Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, which elegantly and clearly explained how natural selection works.

I held on, though, to the idea that we were somehow more than physical beings, and for a while in my teens it pleased me to consider reincarnation: that we are put here by God, or perhaps are even little nodes of godhood, that are born, learn, die, and are reborn again and again, gaining wisdom and experience both as individuals and collectively in our trips "home" between sojourns into this realm of material bodies. But I could never quite convince myself. There were always little nagging doubts, the pinpricks of logic that would not leave me alone and I could not ignore. If souls were bits of God, what was the point of having to experience things in a physical universe? An omniscient god would, by definition, already know everything before the first day of "universe school" ever began. If souls are just individual beings accumulating knowledge and insight through myriad lifetimes, what was the ultimate point of the exercise; that is, to what end were we going through all this? And why did we lose all sense of identity from past lives every time we began a new one, instead of building on that supposedly crucial experience already acquired? It struck me as pointless as going to sleep and, every morning, waking up to have to learn to walk, speak English, dress yourself, and learn to add, etc., etc., etc., all over again. And if souls were infused into the body at conception, what was to be learned from the untold times each of us is a blastocyst that fails to implant in the womb, or is stillborn, or dies in the first weeks of infancy (questions that trouble me even without — in fact, especially without — recourse to reincarnation)? So otherwise as pleasing as it was, I came to the conclusion it was a hollow notion that didn't ring true for me.

I suppose by then I was effectively an atheist; there didn't seem to be much reality to concepts of a deity, or a lot of need for one to explain the world anymore. There were still those old yearnings for immortality, for unconditional love (which, even as a child, seemed oddly conditionally-unconditional in Christian theology), for a thirst for justice for those who caused great harm and seemed to get away with it unpunished in the grave. Whatever lingering theistic cravings I had hung on those.

In my early 30s, I acquired my Irish citizenship by foreign birth registration and part of that was an attendant renewed interest in my Catholic heritage (despite the fact that five of my great-grandparents were, in fact, Protestant). I had never become a fully communicant member of the Church and it felt faintly like something I ought to complete. At the same time, the one-two punches of the loss of a beloved pet and the news that a dear friend was dying, far, far too young of cancer, sent me looking for that spiritual anchor I'd long wondered about. I signed up for adult catechism at my local parish. I saw it through, received the sacraments, and began attending. Things had changed for me since childhood. The Mass was no longer tedious. I enjoyed the ceremony, and it gave me a certain solace and a feeling of community. I even had a Mass said for my friend suffering from cancer. Oddly enough, he didn't understand what I was doing or why. Despite what he was facing, he remained a convinced materialist who understood, a young man in his mid-20s, that he was going to die, that nothing of 'him' was going to survive that death, and that he had much pain and fear ahead. His bravery and his ability to focus on his family and friends and the things he enjoyed were object lessons to me. I quietly drifted away from attending Mass after he died, and though I've been back a few times since, it's been for experience of the ceremony rather than any sincere conviction in the reality of it. And when I do attend, I no longer take communion, out of respect for those for whom the sacrament is at the heart of what they believe.

I guess I'm no longer looking for souls. It's hard; we're wired to want to survive and the idea that, ultimately, we don't, is a hard one to accept. But I can't deny the fact that there's no real evidence to believe otherwise. But there's still solace and wonder in the fact that we, each of us who does exist, or ever has, or ever will, partake anew in the universe's unceasing arising to consciousness and subsequent self-discovery. Every time a child learns about gravity watching raindrops slither down a window pane, or a cat marvels at how the red dot of laser light instantly gets on top of his paw from underneath it, or a raccoon works out how to get at the pizza crusts in your "locked" garbage can, we are, literally, watching the universe discovering and exploring itself, again and again and again. Recently on YouTube, a series of videos called "Symphony of Science" has appeared, making use of clips and quotes from famous popularizers of science; the quotes shaped into song by the only worthwhile use of AutoTune I'm aware of since Cher's Life After Love. A quote by Richard Dawkins in one of the pieces nicely puts a fine point on things for me at this stage in my spiritual evolution: "Matter flows from place to place, and momentarily comes together to become you. Some people find that thought disturbing. I find the reality thrilling."

7 comments:

Scott Palmer, Ph.D. said...

(Part 1. Part 2 follows)

Thanks for a great article!

You covered so much ground that it’s hard to know where to begin. Much of what you said is undisputed, such as our biological relationship to other living things. But I think that you draw some unwarranted conclusions from those facts: unwarranted not in the sense that they are clearly wrong, but that they are optional. They are consistent with the evidence but are not implied by the evidence. Their contraries might equally well be true.

We choose our foundational belief sets partly because of environment and emotional appeal. You found the dogmatic fire-and-brimstone preachments troubling, but you liked the book about dinosaurs. As a result, you would have tended to want to get away from the unpleasant beliefs and gravitate toward the beliefs that you liked. That’s not unique to you: we all tend to do it. The difference is whether or not we’re aware of that influence on our beliefs.

An unfortunate side effect of fire-and-brimstone religion that it makes people think that’s all there is to religion. I think that might have happened to you, but it even happens to clergymen and theologians. One example is Bart Ehrman, an honest, conscientious Protestant theologian who believed that the Bible was inerrant. When he found that it wasn’t, he began to lose his faith entirely. The existence of evil completed the process, and he wrote a heart-rending book titled “God’s Problem” that details his struggle to reconcile his faith with the horrible things that happen to people in this world. In the end, he lost his faith. He is still an honest and conscientious man, but he is no longer a very happy man.

You note that brain states are correlated with states of consciousness. Of course, even St. Thomas Aquinas would admit as much. And it’s certainly possible, as materialists argue, that brain states correlate with conscious states because they’re the same thing. However, it is not the only way to interpret the evidence. William James, the father of American psychology and a philosopher at Harvard, likened the brain to a radio receiver. If a radio receiver is turned on and is working correctly, then it plays the radio broadcast to which it is tuned. If the receiver is turned off, it plays nothing; if it is damaged, it plays incorrectly. But even when the radio is turned off, the broadcast itself exists. So the correlation of brain states and conscious states proves only that there is a connection between those two things, not what kind of connection it is, and particularly not that they are the same thing.

(( If a soul needed a brain in order to think ))

If it did, then that would support your view that we are reducible to our bodies. But I do not know of any evidence that a soul needs a brain in order to think. Of course, much depends on how you define “soul.” Certainly, a soul needs a brain in order to manifest its thoughts in physical form, but that’s a different thing from having the thoughts. It seems to me that this is another case in which the evidence from our world can be interepreted in different ways, and none of those ways is provably correct on empirical grounds.

Scott Palmer, Ph.D. said...

(Part 1. Part 2 follows)

Thanks for a great article!

You covered so much ground that it’s hard to know where to begin. Much of what you said is undisputed, such as our biological relationship to other living things. But I think that you draw some unwarranted conclusions from those facts: unwarranted not in the sense that they are clearly wrong, but that they are optional. They are consistent with the evidence but are not implied by the evidence. Their contraries might equally well be true.

We choose our foundational belief sets partly because of environment and emotional appeal. You found the dogmatic fire-and-brimstone preachments troubling, but you liked the book about dinosaurs. As a result, you would have tended to want to get away from the unpleasant beliefs and gravitate toward the beliefs that you liked. That’s not unique to you: we all tend to do it. The difference is whether or not we’re aware of that influence on our beliefs.

An unfortunate side effect of fire-and-brimstone religion that it makes people think that’s all there is to religion. I think that might have happened to you, but it even happens to clergymen and theologians. One example is Bart Ehrman, an honest, conscientious Protestant theologian who believed that the Bible was inerrant. When he found that it wasn’t, he began to lose his faith entirely. The existence of evil completed the process, and he wrote a heart-rending book titled “God’s Problem” that details his struggle to reconcile his faith with the horrible things that happen to people in this world. In the end, he lost his faith. He is still an honest and conscientious man, but he is no longer a very happy man.

You note that brain states are correlated with states of consciousness. Of course, even St. Thomas Aquinas would admit as much. And it’s certainly possible, as materialists argue, that brain states correlate with conscious states because they’re the same thing. However, it is not the only way to interpret the evidence. William James, the father of American psychology and a philosopher at Harvard, likened the brain to a radio receiver. If a radio receiver is turned on and is working correctly, then it plays the radio broadcast to which it is tuned. If the receiver is turned off, it plays nothing; if it is damaged, it plays incorrectly. But even when the radio is turned off, the broadcast itself exists. So the correlation of brain states and conscious states proves only that there is a connection between those two things, not what kind of connection it is, and particularly not that they are the same thing.

(( If a soul needed a brain in order to think ))

If it did, then that would support your view that we are reducible to our bodies. But I do not know of any evidence that a soul needs a brain in order to think. Of course, much depends on how you define “soul.” Certainly, a soul needs a brain in order to manifest its thoughts in physical form, but that’s a different thing from having the thoughts. It seems to me that this is another case in which the evidence from our world can be interepreted in different ways, and none of those ways is provably correct on empirical grounds.

Scott Palmer, Ph.D. said...

(Part 2 of my previous comment)

(( there's no real evidence to believe otherwise ))

I would rephrase that slightly. I think that there’s considerable evidence. The problem is that the empirical evidence is ambiguous. It can be interpreted to support materialism and atheism, and it can be interpreted to support idealism and theism. As a result, it’s no help. If we’re going to find any evidence, we have to look beyond empiricism and to spiritual insights.

I will tell you about a strange experience I had. It was surprising, unexpected, and it proves nothing, but it does make one think. Did you ever have the experience of a sound that was constantly in the background, so that you didn’t notice it until it stopped? I was once introduced to a Jewish mystic, a rabbi who meditated several hours each day. When I stood in front of him, I was disoriented for a moment: it felt as if there was no one in front of me. Then I leaned in and focused and I could feel that he was present. I had been able to see and hear him, but in a strange sense, I hadn’t been able to feel his presence until I focused and concentrated. It was only then that I realized I had been feeling some kind of extrasensory “vibe” from everyone else I’d ever known, but never noticed it because it was always there. Only when I met the rabbi, whose mind was very quiet from his meditation, did I notice the vibe because of its apparent absence. I know quite well that my experience is open to various interpretations. One of those is that I’m sensing a person’s mental or spiritual presence, which is “broadcast” on a frequency beyond our normal senses and empirical reality. And that suggests a spiritual side of life that is not investigated by physical science.

Again, thanks for a great blog article and many good points. Though we don’t agree, I can see that you have thought carefully and well about these issues.

Lone Primate said...

(Part 1 of 3)
Hi, N.S., thanks for the thoughtful reply. I think in fairness to myself, though, I should point out that I did spend a lot of my life looking for ways to make the concept of a personal god fit and work. Remember, if I was concerned by what I heard on Sunday mornings, it was in the same manner as most other religious people: believing in God and what was being said, but being distressed by the implications and worried for my, and others’, salvation. The things I was hearing were inconsistent with my experience of the world and seemed to me deliberately at odds with the idea of someone loving and forgiving. I didn’t spend my life running away from religion; on the contrary; I put a lot of effort into finding a fit consistent with the world and what I knew to be true. But so far, I haven’t. I doubt I will, to be honest.


"In the end, he lost his faith. He is still an honest and conscientious man, but he is no longer a very happy man."

Assuming this to be true for the moment, I'm drawn me to ask the question: which is preferable, to live a life of blissful delusion, or a less blissful state grounded in reality? To me, there is very little difference in effect between Bart Ehrman having the insubstantial basis for his supposed bliss withdrawn from him, and a heroin addict having his removed from him. In both cases, the result is a less blissful sobriety coupled with a renewed acquaintance with reality. The real question is, which state is preferable. Obviously, that depends on whom you ask.


"William James, the father of American psychology and a philosopher at Harvard, likened the brain to a radio receiver.”

Likening it, and demonstrating it in principle, however, are not the same thing. Breathing and talking and moving around can be likened to someone getting into a car; in this case, that someone is a soul. It’s consistent with the general observation, but that’s not the same thing as saying it’s demonstrated, or even on a par with other explanations simply because it’s conceivable. That brain states correspond to conscious states, sensations, ideas, and motivations is consistent with observation; it’s not dependent on postulating another mechanism that can’t be demonstrated. Assuming the brain to be a supernatural receiver, on the other hand, is (it requires an undemonstrated broadcaster, an undemonstrated message, and an undemonstrated assumption that the brain actually is such a receiver). It may well be, but there’s no REASON to assume so or to prefer that answer over what’s demonstrable other than personal fiat. The distinction is that one interpretation is consistent with what any independent observer can agree is true; the other is not and depends on supposition and subjective personal preferences that vary from person to person.


“Certainly, a soul needs a brain in order to manifest its thoughts in physical form, but that’s a different thing from having the thoughts.”

I don’t know that it is, though. To give substance to that, you first have to establish that souls exist, and then demonstrate, somehow, that they are capable of thought. For example, if we ever prove conclusively that ghosts (in the traditional sense that we mean the word) exist, case made, I’d say. But otherwise, this is simply supposition. Current evidence is consistent with the model that thought is a physical process in the brain.

“and none of those ways is provably correct on empirical grounds.”

Well, no, that’s not the case. The model of the mind as a physical process is consistent with empiricism; there’s nothing that contra-indicates it. To say that we don’t yet understand the subtle nuances of it is not the same as saying we don’t have a consistent and demonstrable understanding of the overall process.

Lone Primate said...

(Part 2 of 3)
“I do not know of any evidence that a soul needs a brain in order to think.”

This isn’t surprising: there’s no evidence for the existence of a soul in the first place; how could there be evidence disputing one of its supposed characteristics? One might as well state one knows no reason why the Loch Ness Monster can’t be pink. Fair enough.

What is known and can be demonstrated is that the brain is the organ of thought and intention. It can also be demonstrated consistently that certain areas of the brain are solely or primarily responsible for certain things that the brain does. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a neurobiologist, has experimented with split-brained patients -- people whose corpus callosum has been cut, severing any communication between the brain’s hemispheres -- and encountered people whose left hemisphere is theist, but whose right hemisphere is atheist. These observations are inconsistent with the idea that identity exists in a single, materially-transcendent soul, or if the brain is a receiver, which regardless of division into two hemispheres that still operate otherwise perfectly normally, should be receiving and thus reacting consistently to an unaffected and integral message from outside.

But if half this person is an avowed disbeliever, what is the fate of this person after death? Can half a soul, or half a person, go to hell? If we assume the soul simply occupies one hemisphere, then we’re demonstrating that it’s possible for at least one hemisphere to think and behave normally without a soul, or without that message coming from beyond. Therefore, what need is there for a soul to think? But if it is, then by necessity this human being now has two souls. What would happen during the Rapture? Would this person be raised whole, except with half a brain left on the street? And by what mechanism would a second soul be infused into this person?

Further to a point I was hinting at in what I blogged, if a soul has no need of a body to think, then we’re left to wonder what the need was to create a physical universe in the first place. If a creator god could simply exist in a community of non-corporeal thinking beings capable of praising and worshipping him, then the necessity of a physical universe is utterly superfluous. In the immortal words of Archie Bunker, it’s “like putting lace on a bowling ball” (or perhaps putting a bowling ball on lace is more apropos). One may resort to the “the mysterious nature of God”, but the evocation of this perennial non-answer is never proof of anything. It’s simply a shrug and an abdication of any intention to investigate deeper for a real answer; something Bart Ehrman had the courage to face and put behind him.

Again, the evidence of the real world around us raises essentially insoluble problems for the concept of a soul as identity or as a component of thought, but these observations are completely consistent with the model of the material brain, and the brain alone, as the initiator, processor, and motivator of thought.


“The problem is that the empirical evidence is ambiguous. It can be interpreted to support materialism and atheism, and it can be interpreted to support idealism and theism.”

Materialism doesn’t interpret empirical evidence to support itself; it is given rise to by empirical evidence. Religion starts with a position and then looks for a proof to buttress it. That’s the difference, and that’s where a lot of interpretation comes in. Materialism is the process of observing the world and formulating positions consistent with it. Theism, on the other hand, is about assuming the existence of something willy-nilly, hoping there might be evidence for it, but going right on believing it regardless; a skyhook position. Atheism isn’t about denying the existence of a deity or the supernatural, but is about assuming the default position of disbelief people ordinarily have about any positive claim and consistently applying it to those questions as well. A crane position.

Lone Primate said...

(Part 3 of 3)
“It was surprising, unexpected, and it proves nothing”

I’m troubled, both here and in a recent post of your own, but this repeated assumption that proof is somehow not crucial to believing something. Religion seems to be just about the only sphere of human discourse where this is typically the case. But if I came to your door and told you to get out, because I believed I owned your house; or if I told you that I believed you owed me $150,000, payable immediately; or if I told you that I believed you had to have your left eye removed to prevent kidney cancer – what is the first thing you would demand of me? Proof. Evidence. A clear and demonstrable reason for you to believe the claim and act accordingly. In absence of it, you would dismiss the claims, at least until such time as evidence was established... would you not?

So why is this not important in the case of a god, or its attendant religion? Why are people who would have laughed at the unsubstantiated claims I made above willing to throw out critical discernment in the case that someone says “this insubstantial being exists and demands you act a certain way”? Really, there are two reasons I can think of. One is that everyone they knew and trusted as children told them it was true, and why would they lie? (Of course, the same was true for those people, and the people who told them, and the people who told them, et cetera ad nauseam...) The other is that it pleases them to do so: it comes with it the implication of immortality, infinite justice, a sense of love in an otherwise scary world, and so on.

There’s nothing about the twenty-six letters in the English version of the Latin alphabet that rules out the existence of others. And I guess one could insist on that basis that there’s no reason not to believe in an additional mystical seven, or twelve, or three-and-seven-eighths letters that are silent, invisible, and take up absolutely no space between the letters that we can see exist, and suppose them to be in every word, secretly making it somehow better, more sensical, or more specific than the plain, materialistic word we actual see and hear. That’s in no way inconsistent with empirical evidence, I suppose. But why would anyone believe that? Simply because they were told to?

I can’t speak for every atheist and wouldn’t presume to. But I don’t disbelieve in the supernatural because it pleases me; why would it? I’d like to believe in God, the idea that I will exist forever, that I will be reunited with loved ones after death, that at the centre of things really is someone of infinite love and compassion and wisdom and that everything will turn out fine in the end. Who wouldn’t like to believe such things? But by the same token, I’d also love to believe in Bigfoot. I’d love to believe we’re being visited by UFOs. I’d love to believe in telepathy and telekinesis and ghosts. All of those things would please me; they’d sure make the world a more interesting place. There’s nothing I’m aware of that absolutely implies they can’t exist. But the fact is, I, and probably you, don’t believe in those things, however much we might like to, for a simple reason: there’s no grounds to. There’s anecdote, there’s rumour, there’s exciting possibility... but so far, no proof. For me, and people like me, proof is crucial to really, honestly believing something.

I can’t, and wouldn’t, deny that you experienced something. But I honestly don’t see the basis to jump to the conclusion that it was God, or essentially spiritual in nature. And to sum up, while I agree in principle that much of empirical evidence isn’t inconsistent with the existence of the supernatural, I don’t agree that that in and of itself provides an actual support for believing in it, and I don’t believe that accepting things on the basis of that evidence on the one hand, and on the other hand assuming the existence of things beyond that evidence simply because they are not actually ruled out by it, are equivalent alternate positions.

Scott Palmer, Ph.D. said...

LP,

You make good points, as usual. And this is your blog, so I don't want to belabor these points.

However, it seems to me that much of your argument is an extended riff on two themes:

First, that there is no empirical evidence that empiricism is false.

Second, that one should not believe anything without proof.

Empiricism means that we restrict our attention only to certain types of phenomena and that we ignore others. As a practical principle, it's essential in scientific work. However, we should recognize it as an assumption, not as a scientific conclusion. In particular, it does not imply that only empirical phenomena are real.

And consider the statement "One should not believe anything without proof." I would be interested to know what proof you have for that statement. The simple fact is that we believe all kinds of things without proof. Scientific work itself relies on unproven assumptions and reaches unproven conclusions for which there is some evidence but for which there is not, and in the nature of the enterprise for which there is never, conclusive evidence. That is, it reaches conclusions that have almost exactly the same epistemological status as the theistic conclusions that I adopt and for which I freely admit a lack of conclusive evidence.

By the way, my point about Bart Ehrman was not that it's better to be happily deluded than unhappily sane (though that point can be, and has been, debated). My point was that the all-or-nothing approach to religion and science leads people to jump to the opposite extreme when it's logically unnecessary. What Ehrman craved, and originally thought he had, was total clarity, certainty, and understanding. When he found that he didn't have those things, he threw up his hands in despair about the whole thing. I'd suggest that in religion and in science, we have a more reliable picture of reality if we accept that there are some things we do not understand well, other things we do not understand at all, and still other things that we perhaps can never understand. When I was 20, I would have thought that was nonsense. Now, I don't. I can live with it.