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Posted by on Mar 7, 2008 in mystical experiences | 47 comments

Religious experience

What is it like to be a true believer?

For many, it’s something like a perceptual experience – like just directly seeing that there’s an orange on the table in front of them, say.

If you ask them why they believe, then of course they may give reasons and justifications of one sort or another. But even if such grounds for believing are provided, typically, not that much weight is placed on them. Such evidence, the theist may say, is not what really explains why they believe. They don’t infer that God exists from evidence. Rather, they “just know”. They directly experience God, perhaps in something like the way I just directly experience that orange on the table in front of me. To them, it is as obvious as that (perhaps even more obvious than that) that God is present. When they look at the world, it seems perfectly clear to them that it’s imbued with a divine presence. They may even find themselves baffled that you can’t sense this presence.

So what’s going on here?

Giving reasons

People’s beliefs are shaped in two very different ways – as illustrated by the two very different ways we might answer the question “Why does Jane believe what she does?”

First, we might offer Jane’s reasons and justifications – the grounds of her belief that she herself might cite. Why does Jane believe the Republicans will lose the next election? Because she has seen the opinion polls and knows that the causes of the current Republican slump – such as Iraq – are unlikely to disappear in the near future. So, infers Jane on the basis of this evidence, the Republicans will probably lose.

Giving causes

But that’s not the only way in which we might explain a belief. Suppose Bert believes he is a teapot. Why? Because Bert attended a hypnotist’s stage-show last night. Bert was pulled out of the audience and hypnotized into believing he is a teapot. The hypnotist forgot to un-hypnotize him, and so Bert is still stuck with that belief.

Of course, Bert need not be aware of the true explanation of why he believes he is a teapot. He may not remember being hypnotized. If we ask Bert to justify his belief, he may find himself unable. He may simply find himself stuck with it. He may well say, with utter conviction, that he just knows he is a teapot.

In fact, because such non-inferentially-held beliefs are usually perceptual beliefs, it may seem to Bert that he can see he’s a teapot. “Look!” he may say, sticking out his arms “Can’t you see? Here’s my handle and here’s my spout!” In fact, Bert may be slightly baffled that you can’t see it too.

So we can explain beliefs by giving a person’s own easons, grounds and justifications, and we can explain beliefs by giving purely causal explanations (I say purely causal, as perhaps reasons are causes too). Purely causal explanations include, say, being hypnotized or brainwashed, or caving in to peer pressure. They may also include being genetically predisposed to having certain sorts of belief.

Reliable and unreliable causal mechanisms

Note that not all causal mechanisms are unreliable when it comes to producing true beliefs. Hypnotism, brainwashing and so on aren’t reliable, of course. They can just as easily be used to induce false beliefs as true ones. However, our perceptual mechanisms, such as sight, are, it seems, pretty reliable when it comes to producing true beliefs (occasionally they mislead us, but not that often; generally speaking things are as they appear to be). If my eyes are open and the the lights are on, and you put an orange on the table in front of me, that will cause me to believe theres an orange there. Take it away, and that will cause me to believe the orange is gone.

According to the simple reliabilist theory of knowledge, I can know that P if my belief that P is produced by the state of affairs P via a reliable mechanism.

So, for example, if sight is a reliable belief-forming mechanism, I can know there is an orange on the table in front of me. When I see that orange on the table before me, I may not be able to give give grounds for inferring the orange is there. I may not be able to inferentially justify my belief. But according to reliabilism, I can still know it’s there. I know it’s there, if there is an orange there, and the orange’s being there is causing me to believe it’s there via a reliable mechanism.

How might religious experiences and beliefs be produced?

They might be produced in a purely causal way, of course.

Let’s start with some non-reliable causal mechanisms.

For example, we might hypnotize Bert into supposing he is experiencing God.

Or, a belief might be produced via natural selection (this is currently a focus of much interesting research). Having a propensity to religious belief and experience might give an individual or small group an evolutionary advantage. Religious believers are likely to be more committed to a cause, less fearful of laying down their lives in its pursuit, more easily organized by a leader they believe to be divinely ordained, and so on. This may allow groups possessing such a propensity to succeed where competing groups fail.

Another possibility is brainwashing. Take education under totalitarian regimes. Pupils are encouraged to accept uncritically the political tenets of the regime, schools begin each day with the collective singing of political anthems and the repetition of key political beliefs, portraits of political leaders beam down from classroom walls, and son. By means of emotional manipulation, peer pressure, repetition, and other purely causal mechanisms, a powerful commitment to a political cause can be fostered, without ever having to provide any justifications for the beliefs at all. Such indoctrination factories (of the sort we find in, say, Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China) are often accused of “brainwashing” children.

But if we cross out “political” and write “religious”, then of course we find such schools up and down the country. The same kind of purely causal techniques are applied.

If you have been on the receiving end of such causal mechanisms, with the result that you are now a true believer, you may, like Bert, who was hypnotized into believing he’s a teapot, find yourself in an odd position.

Just like Bert, you find you cannot justify what you believe. You simply find yourself “stuck” with the belief. You’ll probably say that you “just know” that God exists. Indeed, because such non-inferentially arrived at beliefs are typically perceptual beliefs, it may seem to you that you can just directly perceive that God exists. So we have here a possible explanation of at least some religious experiences.

The sensus divinitatis

The question is, are these sorts of explanation correct?

Or is the correct explanation of at least some religious experiences that they are genuinely of God, produced by a reliable quasi-perceptual mechanism, such as Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis?

Note that, if the simple reliabilist theory of knowledge is correct, a religious person can correctly insist he may just know that God exists, even if he cannot justify his belief! He can still be a knower if he has a reliable belief-forming mechanism – a sensus divinitatis – and that mechanism is producing this belief.

So, what is more likely? What is it more reasonable to believe about religious experiences? That at least some are veridical, and produced by a reliable God-sensing mechanism – a sensus divinitatis? Or that they are non-veridical, and produced in other ways?

A point I made earlier was that, given what we know about human beings – in particular, their tendency to have very weird experiences, the power of suggestion to induce or shape such experiences, as well as the existence of other causal mechanisms such as those described above – shouldn’t we expect a great many such experiences anyway, whether or not God exists? I think we should. But then the fact that there are a great many such experiences is not good evidence for God.

I also pointed out that these experiences also contradict each other (so we know that very many must be at least in large part delusory), and that there is, in addition, overwhelming evidence that there is no Judeo-Christian God (the problem of evil).

Still, if I am having such an experience right now, shouldn’t I take it at face value? Aren’t I justified in doing so? Aren’t I justified in taking such experiences at face value at least until I have good grounds for supposing I’ve been deceived (and perhaps not even then)?

That’s what many “reformed epistemologists” like Alston and Plantinga suppose. But I’d suggest I am not justified. Me taking my religious experience at face value, it seems to me, is not like, say, me taking my experience of there being an orange on the table in front of me at face value.

It’s more like the case of someone who takes such an experience at face value, even after they (i) discover that they were at a magic show at which a great many illusions and false beliefs were generated, and (ii) are given very good grounds for thinking there was no orange there. That person might have been lucky enough to have seen a real orange (so they may, in Plantinga’s sense, be externally “warranted” in holding the belief [indeed, according to the simple reliabilist theory, they know there was an orange there]). But they are not justified or rational in continuing to believe they saw a real orange. Are they?

In which case, whether or not there’s a God, or indeed, whether or not we are equipped with a sensus divinitatis, we are not rational or justified in believing God exists.

Not even if we are happen to have had such experiences.


  1. If the theist claims that God is a supernatural being, then all his senses, existing in the natural, cannot possibly bridge the supernatural/natural boundary and detect God. If God has some mechanism, a force perhaps, that can bridge the supernatural/natural boundary, then science would be able to detect that force. Until science detects that mechanism as it exists in the natural domain, the theist just has an active imagination.

  2. In the 120+ post thread earlier I stressed that we really cannot just simply apprehend god in an immediate way. In fact, we can’t do this for quite mundane things. You see an orange in front of you (you think). Do you immediately apprehend the orange as an orange? I think not. You see something that has the qualities x, you apply a classificatory conceptual scheme to that experience, and the thing comes out being classified as an orange. Of course this happens so naturally that you might think that you have seen the orange as an orange, without higher order work going on. A mystic experiences a feeling of love, power, all-encompassing presence (etc). They say they experienced god, directly – it was immediate. The godhood was contained in the very experience of god. Was it? Not so far as I can countenance.But if they didn’t experience god as god, immediately, directly, there is a chance for their experiences to have been wrong or mistaken. In which case, all the other sorts of considerations that Stephen gives become of substantial significance to whether we credit our mystical experiences with truth or not.

  3. I disagree – I think “someone makes it all happen” is a severe lack of imagination on the part of theists.nal following your argument against the supernatural I used to suspect this too. Working from arguments analogous to those about an invisible an being unable to see. The pigment in his eyes does not interact with light in any way hence he does not detect light. The issue I am grappling with is what about the simulation type of scenario? Assume we are living in a simulated universe – something like “The Sims” but much more advanced. God – the being outside the simulation – can intervene if things are not going according to plan. Several schemes come to mind.A) Suspend the run, tweak things to suit and then start up again. Really gross discontinuities might our. Possibly we could detect these (miracles?)B) If the simulation includes random events(non-determinism) for things like radioactive decay then it might be possible to tweak these in an undetectable way so as to choose between two equally likely alternatives. In this case would we be any the wiser? Maybe if the intervention was enough to screw up the statistics.C) Stop the run and go back to the beginning (or a suitable saved state) with suitably modified starting conditions. Possibly just re-seed the random number generator and try again. Awfully wasteful but would we know any different from inside?D) If the simulation is finite, then it might be possible to intervene by adjusting boundary conditions which are outside our immediate perception. Here I a thinking of what happens outside our light cone. Currently my position on it is that this still does not necessarily make “God” supernatural in a real sense. Sure in a functional way it is but there is nothing to say that this “God” does not exist in a natural way obeying (unknown but not unknowable) physical laws.There may be many “Gods” each with their own computing equipment running versions of the software, each looking over a metaphorical shoulder wondering exactly the same… In any case it still leaves the problem of evil and other issues so I remain an atheist.

  4. anon: The pigment in his eyes does not interact with light in any way hence he does not detect light. Retina, not pigment, but yes the invisible man would have been blind. I wonder if H. G. Wells thought about that. It would have ruined the story of course.As for some kind of natural based simulation, I think the Heisenberg uncertainty principle would preclude that. There would be too much uncertainty about the state of the universe at any point in time to recreate it.

  5. nal – I still think it is the pigment that does the absorbing.See Wikipedia entry on “cone cells”Anyway, thats just me being pedantic and doesn’t affect the outcome. I don’t think Heisenberg gets us out of being simulated. Could it not be a property of the simulation itself?Kosh3 – Does this mean that both the sensory justification and the interpretation of the mystical experience are “filled in” by the mind afterwards in an attempt to make sense of it?

  6. Rather off topic but Stephen, I really enjoyed your talk on The problem of evil yesterday at Heythrop college. Definately the most interesting of the day!

  7. Thanks Rowan – and thanks for coming along, too.

  8. Kosh3 – Does this mean that both the sensory justification and the interpretation of the mystical experience are “filled in” by the mind afterwards in an attempt to make sense of it?Not sure what you mean by sensory justification – the phenomenal experience involved? But as for interpretation, it doesn’t necessarily have to be afterwards that they interpret their experiences in some way or another – although it definitely could be. They may for instance do it at the very moment of the mystical experience. If we see an orange, we recognise it as such at that moment by applying a learned classificatory scheme to our perceptions.

  9. Kodh3 said “Not sure what you mean by sensory justification – the phenomenal experience involved?” Yes. The burning bush, the bright lights, the strange voices and so forth. In another thread I think it was Mr. Lawson suggested mystical experiences consisted of a noetic component which could not necessarily be related to any (real world) sensory component in a logical way. Reason is no good under these conditions. The knowledge of how to interpret the signs is “just there”. [My apologies to Mr Lawson if I have misunderstood and appear to be putting words in his mouth – this is really not my intention.]My suggestion is simply that the mind possibly constructs the phenomena in order to come to terms with the knowledge. e.g. I suddenly know that I am destined for greatness. -> How do I know this? -> Someone must have told me. -> But there is no one else here. -> A voice (must have) spake unto me…etc. (An alternative suggestion follows. I am not quite sure of this yet. More reflection alled for really but this is a blog so half baked ideas have their place I hope) A more mechanical way of looking at it is what happens if some brain surgeon simply pokes a region of you brain with a probe? You might feel sorrow, see lights or smell onions but unless you routinely undergo such procedures you would not say “aha! a region just above my anterior cingulate whosname has been prodded with a rather blunt probe” you would say “I smell onions!”. In all probability no onions would be found though. Is the surgeons probe supernatural?

  10. nai, I think you’re operating on a postenlightenment view of natural and supernatural as two inseperable realms. Christian theism has never really held this view, the Bible never speaks of God’s actions as supernatural, they are just actions of God.

  11. For a religious person, ‘truth’ is an entirely different concept from the non-religious person’s understanding of ‘truth’.For the latter, it is related to testable evidence and notions of veracity. For the former, it is a matter of faith. The religious deem it a virtue to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

  12. Anticant, I am a theist and my conception of truth is correspondance truth. I’ve noticed that many atheists try to defend atheism by falling back on a coherentist or pragmatic version of truth. But I don’t assume that most (or all) do.Supernatural… Physics is natural law, is logic supernatural law? See what Stephen says:I also pointed out that these experiences also contradict each other (so we know that very many must be at least in large part delusory), and that there is, in addition, overwhelming evidence that there is no Judeo-Christian God (the problem of evil).How do we know logical truths? Maybe the state of affairs that is all possible worlds produces it, by a reliable mechanism! (If not, if something more Quinean, then does our truth go coherentist or pragmatic?) But that is a bit mystical-sounding!Of course, it is just natural for logical truths; but if there is a God then God is like a logical truth (personal not impersonal, substance not semantics, but still, something transcending and prior to all lesser things, like the universe). Now, if there is a logic then we could know it directly (wrong theories of truth aside) by its constraining of all our valid thoughts (not all our thoughts, unfortunately; nor all our good thoughts, as poetry shows).But then similarly, of course we could know that there is a God if there is a God, we could know it directly by its global constraints; but also, by other direct means, more so than in the case of logic (not less so, more so, because it is a richer possibility). You are going to say that unlike logic which we all agree on we don’t all agree on God…?…but the thing is, we do have different intuitions of what logic is (and conceptions of God amongst those who know what they’re talking about are remarkably similar actually).There is intuitionistic logic, classical logic, set-theoretical logic, first and second order logic, paraconsistent logic… They contradict each other, but do we know that most logic must be delusory? Maybe it is all complimentary rather than contradictory (or rather, all the good stuff is; yes, that begs a question about what is good, but you will have one intuition about that in the case of logic, one that differs from the common person’s intuitions btw, and another when it comes to God, and what needs justifying is that difference).And there is overwhelming evidence that there is no standard logic (the set-theoretical paradoxes). Yes, yes, I know that those paradoxes show no such thing. But you know that there are many theological answers to the problem of evil (and that there remains a logical problem of absolute generality, even after all these years of the overwhelming dominance of set-theoretical logic).

  13. Thanks for your comments Enigman. I like the logic analogy, but do think it rather misleading. You say:“Now, if there is a logic then we could know it directly (wrong theories of truth aside) by its constraining of all our valid thoughts (not all our thoughts, unfortunately; nor all our good thoughts, as poetry shows).”“But then similarly, of course we could know that there is a God if there is a God, we could know it directly by its global constraints; but also, by other direct means, more so than in the case of logic (not less so, more so, because it is a richer possibility).”COMMENT: I agree to “could know”. I have not ruled out in principle the possibility of there being good evidence or direct experience for God. I just deny there is any. Indeed, I point to excellent grounds for being highly distrustful of religious experiences.“You are going to say that unlike logic which we all agree on we don’t all agree on God…?…but the thing is, we do have different intuitions of what logic is (and conceptions of God amongst those who know what they’re talking about are remarkably similar actually).”COMMENT: Only if you define “those who know what they are talking about” as those who tend to agree with you about the supernatural. Religious experiences do differ wildly. They present a wide variety of Gods and supernatures. Most of these experiences must therefore be significantly inaccurate.“There is intuitionistic logic, classical logic, set-theoretical logic, first and second order logic, paraconsistent logic… They contradict each other, but do we know that most logic must be delusory?”COMMENT: Yes of course we do know that most of these theories and formal systems must be to some extent mistaken (i.e. to at least the extent to which they contradict each other.) They cannot all be true (if, indeed, “true” is the appropriate word, here).But of course you are trading on an ambiguity here. The systems cannot all be true, but they will for the most part agree in what they predict. So they are not “delusory” in that sense. This is the point you’re appealing to, I guess. But, as I explain below, here your analogy breaks down.But first, let me say I am guessing you yourself think that one type of religion – monotheism – is true, and not just that, but the classical variety on which the God in question is limitlessly benevolent and maximally powerful. In which case, you think the religious experiences that contradict this conception of God (experiences of a bloodthirsty God, of a pantheon of character-gods, etc. etc.) are, to that extent, delusory.But if you do reject very many religious experiences as mostly delusory, then my point that we then have grounds to distrust all such experiences stands, doesn’t it?Now let’s return to your point that:“Maybe it is all complimentary rather than contradictory.”COMMENT: As I say, different logics complement each other in terms of usefulness. Yes, here we might use this logic; but in another case another would be more fruitful.But their usefulness consists in their producing true conclusions.Except in a few special cases, the different logics produce identical conclusions. They all have great predictive value.Contrast religious hypotheses. The different religious hypotheses are typically of little predictive value. They don’t “complement” one another in terms of what they allow us to predict and explain.Compare e.g. a bloodthirsty, human-sacrifice-demanding God hypothesis versus a pantheon of wacky-character-gods hypothesis, versus the God of classical monotheism hypothesis – what predictions do these different hypotheses allow us to make, which we might then test?Well, actually, I think the last hypothesis actually has the biggest (I’d say, insurmountable) problems with the available empirical evidence (because of the problem of evil)! But if you disagree, then I will settle for this: none of them make particularly clear, testable predictions.So I think that while you are right to suggest that different logics aren’t “delusory” in terms of providing us with powerful predictive tools, the analogy with religious experience then breaks down, as it offers us no powerful predictive tools.Lastly, just to repeat my earlier point: as, as I say, if you do reject many religious experiences as mostly delusory, then my point that we then have grounds to distrust all such experiences stands, doesn’t it?

  14. Hi Stephen, no I don’t think it does. I’m glad you liked the analogy (and gave it some thought); all analogies are a bit misleading, and mine was no exception. But logic is only so predictive (so to speak) because it is so trivial (whereas religion is not). A valid argument gives us no more than we put into it (whereas true religions should give us more). So before the logic does anything, we already had it all (whereas we have so little really). It is what we already had that was predictive (whilst how we misinterpret the transcendental could account for our usual inability to use our experiences of it predictively).Similarly mathematics makes no predictions. Mathematical models are used to make predictions in science. But even then, outside engineered situations the real world is usually too messy for such predictions to be very good. We can engineer stuff, e.g. aeroplanes. But that goes beyond maths and logic. And in fact, to predict where a plane will go you need to know the beliefs of the people operating it. At present, Occam’s razor cannot leave us with only physical science and the same predictive power. But is predictive power so important that you would not presume physicalism until Occam’s razor left it us?Anyway, I do think the religious experiences that contradict this conception of God (experiences of a bloodthirsty God, of a pantheon of character-gods, etc. etc.) are, to that extent, delusory, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the creator of this world is bloodthirsty (your evil god story is very good). And maybe I would think the opposite of the truth about God (more or less) if I was opposite (good where God is bloodthirsty, bad where God is benevolent). And some of us are bloodthirsty, and some of us (it never ceases to amaze me) are benevolent. And often bloodthirstiness is widely regarded as virtuous (even today that seems true, and it was certainly very true in the past). And often benevolence is widely regarded as virtuous (at least ideally, and that must have been true for most of the time, or else we’d be Klingons). So a glimpse at history and geography, and an elementary fact about the possibilities for perceiving God, would indicate (would predict) that people would give varying descriptions of God’s goodness, even if God was good. So such variation is not evidence against there being relatively good perception of a good God.And God is transcendent, so a similar point applies to God’s appearance quite generally. My favourite analogy here is the Sphere appearing to the triangles in Flatland. Or imagine a cube appearing to them (or a four-dimensional space with sphere surfaces and cube surfaces). We might hope to get some idea of the nature of the transcendent object by putting together a lot of apparently inconsistent but hopefully complimentary world-sized aspects. But we would have to try to compensate for the (aforementioned) fact that people would tend to see the same thing differently (were that thing essentially ethical). In short, the evidence is intrinsically inconclusive (could hardly tell you much unless you have put in a lot of interpretive work and were very inspired and a genius).Anyway, I don’t see that religions are not predictive. If you are truly good (whatever I or anyone else thinks) then you will go to Heaven. You can’t see much of the verifying results in this world, but then I can’t see much of the verifying results of particle physics in this life. I’m quite unusual in not just taking those experts’ words for it (partly because I know enough maths to question their set theory, and enough physics to question their relativity). But I regard it as reasonable to take their words for what they find (especially if you don’t know much physics). Or not, of course; and similarly with religious doctrines. But the accounts of revelations themselves, I’m quite open-minded about; and I could take almost all of them to be almost literal (they could not possibly be as literal as our ordinary descriptions of a purely physical event could be) and have no inconsistency with my Monotheistic beliefs. And the reason is that our lives, and such experiences, are extremely complicated, compared to our languages. (Logic, on the other hand, is very simple. But similarly global (or superglobal).)

  15. Incidentally, I agree with you that religious education is a lot like political indoctrination. There is and has been a lot of politics in religion (and education, inevitably), but that is what we should expect, were there a Creator of a world like this one (this far from Heaven). There has even been some politics mixed up with physics; arguably less so nowadays, but then we would think so wouldn’t we?What I would do is try to separate the politics from the theology, as much as possible, before (or as part of) judging whether or not God exists; much as I would in the case of physics. But many atheists just believe that science is realistic because of a scientific method that they take the scientists’ words for, because of predictive power that they take the scientists’ words for (which is no better than believing in the God of the Bible because it says that you are right to in the Bible). We can all see that aeroplanes fly, but that is engineering, not science. Not only can we not see that time is relativistic, or that everything is made of superstrings (or that we evolved from minerals), even the experts disagree about such things.The similarities between ethics and physics are quite interesting. Who are the experts about physics? Physicists (in non-communist countries)? Philosophers of physics? Lay people? Analytic philosophers tend to say the physicists. Lay people don’t quite see the cutting-edge questions for what they are, by and large, but the experts (whether they are physicists or philosophers) disagree about the answers (and to some extent the questions too). And I for one would take the lay point of view about time to be closer to the truth than most expert opinion (for good reason, we are all in time whereas the experts are concentrating upon just a few details, with a very specialised language… it’s not even clear that they mean time by ‘time’)…But of course, physicists have been increasingly important politically, especially since the world went nuclear (and MAD); and priests decreasingly so. Religious education is a political rather than a theological matter (and personally I favour secularism, if it is not atheistic), but what is the relevent sociology (to inform us about what is objectively best)? Marxist? Libertarian? Monotheistic? How we view the wider world determines how we decide, and rightly or wrongly religions are widespread, have stood the tests of time (and are changing their views about women etc.) etc. At least the monotheistic religions regard all people as equal, really (before God as they would put it), whereas atheists tend to regard that as something that is not quite true but politic to say (and for lesser minds to believe). It is not unreasonable for low-class people to trust priests with the upbringing of their children (and not all scientists are Frankensteins).But who are the experts on ethics? Priests (in the liberal West)? Philosophers of ethics? Lay people? Analytic philosophers tend to say philosophers, even though they seem to know less about ethics than physics; and why compare theology with aeroplanes, why not with particle physics? Lay people often agree on the basic ethical issues (murder is usually wrong, stealing is usually wrong but less so, etc.), as they do about engineering. That they get more right now than they used to is down to priests and physicists respectively (because enough of those experts really cared about getting closer to the truth, not primarily about winning an argument, or making it pay). But they often disagree about the details of ethics (as the experts do, and as they and the experts do about the details of physics). The physicists study global theories (which they rarely add to) of the physical aspects of the world, as part of science (but often to the point of absurdity, e.g. time-travel); and priests study global theories (which they rarely add to) of the ethical aspects of the world, as part of society (but often to the point of absurdity, e.g. the eucharist). Still, people enjoy the pagentry of the eucharist, and people enjoy the fictions of time-travellers…

  16. Woops, that was a bit incoherent of me… I hasten to add that I’m no fan of religious education; but one can’t justify toleration on the grounds that ultimately anything goes (since intoleration goes famously), so atheism is prima facie no better than dogmatic religion, as an educational foundation. (E.g., would atheists get their ethics from a democratic vote? But then homophobia in schools would have been a good thing, until quite recently, whereas it wasn’t.)

  17. “We can all see that aeroplanes fly, but that is engineering, not science.”Are you saying that engineering doesn’t have a scientific basis? I don’t think most engineers would agree with you!”At least the monotheistic religions regard all people as equal, really (before God as they would put it).”What an extraordinary statement! All the religious people I’ve known – and I’ve known some very good ones – believe that their faith makes them ‘special’ in the eyes of God, Allah or whoever they worship, and that unbelievers – or believers of other faiths – are benighted lost souls.

  18. Enigman, I had posted on this earlier today but my comments vanished, don’t know what happened. Anyway We can all see that aeroplanes fly, but that is engineering, not science.I think Anticant was very civil in his responce to that ridiculous statement. The similarities between ethics and physics are quite interesting.Not really sure where to start with this. You can’t seriously compare these. Let me put it this way. The physical universe is governed by laws. You must obey these laws. You do not choose to obey the law of gravity. Ethics on the other hand is an abstract concept. You choose whether or not to behave ethically. It is nothing more than an opinion. You can have an expert in physics. There is no such thing as an expert on ethics. Only the religious are arrogant enough to insist that they know how everyone should conduct themselves. Only the religious would suggest moral and ethical absolutes. Priest are nothing more than folklorists. They are expert in nothing, least of all ethics. At least the monotheistic religions regard all people as equal, really (before God as they would put it)That is just laughable. Tell that to gay people, women or anyone who doesn’t share your particular version of the fairytale. Time by the way has been experimentally proven to be relativistic. The lay persons intuition about time is wrong. When you want to know about physics, ask a phyicist. Not sure at all why you would ask a philosopher? If you want to know about ethics, ask anyone. It is afterall a subjective matter of opinion. That was quite a mound of gibberish. Too much to comment on all of it. From the straw-Atheists to the complete hypocrisy regarding religious ethics. (Most forms of the monotheisms persecute gays – still.) It is thankfully only a matter of time before the western variety does an about face on the gay issue. They are falling too far behind secular (popular) ethics and will have to play catch-up yet again. As usual, the church will be redefining its ethics to better fit in with society (thereby retaining the dupes who support it) and then try to take credit for it. Sickening.

  19. Enigman,I’m not terribly interested in the details of what religious people believe, or whether what they believe is ‘true’ or not. What concerns me is their actions, many of which are prompted by their religious beliefs.All three Abrahamic monotheistic religions have a serious charge sheet to answer. At present I’m reading, with mounting horror and disgust, “Double Cross: The Code of the Catholic Church” by David Ranan. It’s solidly researched, and cannot be dismissed as mere anti-Catholic propaganda. What appals me most is the Catholic Church’s role in stoking the flames of anti-semitism down the ages, and particularly its despicable fawning on the Nazis not just in the 1930s and during the War, when it turned a blind eye to the Holocaust, but its role afterwards in helping many mass-murderers to escape justice.”All people are regarded as equal before God” forsooth!

  20. “It is thankfully only a matter of time before the western variety does an about face on the gay issue.”His Wishy-Washyness the Archbishop of Canterbury has been trying to do just that, and has got his cassock into a real twist with those bigoted African bishops.I can’t see the RC church attempting anything similar in the foreseeable future. They’ve got too much investment in the traditional position – not to mention all those paedophile priests they can’t afford to look soft on. Realism about sex is anathema to the Catholic Church. But then, so is realism about anything else.

  21. Enigman – I must really disagree about mathematics making no predictions. Some of the work on rather knotty problems has progressed in tortuous stages some of which serve simply to make predictions about the ultimate result. Things like “if such a set exists it must have less than 5 members”. Unfortunately most of us don’t get to see all this sort of stuff once the problem is solved. The end product ends up in the texts with a lot of the hard graft simply footnotes.The flatlanders study of a sphere does not I think help your case a great deal. Our own solid three dimensional theoreticians seem quite adept at playing around with spaces of many or even of infinite or fractal dimensions.Do I understand that you are claiming that there is a logic (hitherto unpublished) which allows a God to exist?

  22. The analogy between perceiving an orange (or at least, perceiving something orange) and knowing directly that there is a God (or at least, that there is something divine behind this world) was central to Stephen’s post. That connected physics (an orange existing) with theology (God existing). But perceiving God directly is more like knowing dirctly that one is conscious (and not merely physical) or awake (and not dreaming), or that life is meaningful… Wittgenstein thought that last one was belief in God. But it is more like a presupposition of rational thought (like assuming that one has free will, to choose between options), is more like logic than physics.The differences that Stephen listed (between logic and God) were not really relevant to the epistemological point (which was that an analogy between physics and God was even more deceptive), I thought, but maybe they were; but they were also a bit false. I learn (and can predict) nothing about the weather by knowing (what is a logical truth) that either it is raining or else it is not raining, as Wittgenstein noted. But I would learn a lot about the future if I learnt that there was a God (who created a world that therefore has meaning) and a Heaven or Hell awaiting me in the future (depending upon my meaning).What is a little more like physics is ethics, I noted. The Celtic Chimp’s list of differences between ethics and physics was irrelevent, I think. One might as well respond to Stephen’s analogy by saying that God is infinite, and an orange is finite! (To do that is to reject reasonable thought; but I shall return to such things below.)But another interesting analogy is between mathematics education and religious education. Religious education is bad because kids are subjected to a very one-sided view of reality. I agree, but then we are only human aren’t we. You could object that it is a view known to be false, but that would be to engage in a philosophical debate. It has not been shown to be false (you may say it has, but that is debateable). But have you noticed that one could argue that mathematics education is bad because kids are subjected to a very one-sided view of reality. Some (e.g. intuitionists) would even object that it is a false view; but let’s leave that debate to one side. Neither debate is very apposite to what we should allow kids to be taught.Eveyone knows ethics (more or less), but everyone knows maths too (more or less), and yet there are experts on mathematics, and the experts say that maths is ZFC. (Some do not, but that just makes the analogy with religion better.) ZFC has not been shown to be inconsistent, and almost all mathematicians have no problem with working within ZFC. But that much can be said of religious schools (at least within religious communities, and where else would we find them?). Do we demand that our maths teachers learn no foundation? No. We might prefer a range of foundations, but we would have no problem with them all knowing ZFC maths (as is the case, and do you object?).Another parallel is that fans of ZFC say that ZFC is necessarily true (in all possible worlds), much as fans of some religious doctrine will say that it cannot be wrong. But you don’t say that one thing that is wrong with ZFC (with the maths that our kids are being taught) is that it does not allow opposition! Anyway, I could go on and on about that parallel, but I shall spare you. One aspect that is more relevant to this post is that Godel (a platonist about set theory, if not ZFC set theory) said that one can have something like a perception (like the perception of an orange) of the axioms of set theory, when those axioms force themselves upon one as being true.Many people would question that (2 + 2 = 4 is obvious, but the axiom of replacement is surely not), and anyway, other great mathematicians believe in different axioms. So one could argue (after the manner of Stephen) that it is more likely that mathematicians believe in ZFC (and the rest of us believe in standard mathematics) because we are taught such things at school. So the very apposite aspect is, is it then irrational and unjustified for us to believe that ZFC is true?Or is it not rather some evidence that ZFC is true, or near to the truth at least, that great mathematicians find its axioms self-evident? And even if great mathematicians differ about some of the axioms (or the background logic), is it not obvious that there is very little doubt (the polar opposite of no reason for justification) about most mathematics, just as there is very little doubt about most ethics. So, is there anything wrong with our children being taught that basic maths by those with degrees in ZFC maths? And is it irrational to believe in ZFC? Note that ZFC is the maths that is assumed by almost all scientists. And engineers; if they are applying science (and they are, I just wonder if they are doing science), they are also applying ZFC maths. That is so even if the same results could be got by another sort of maths……and similarly, all the scientific evidence for materialism is equally evidence for substantial dualism, since the latter would only disagree with the former, not at the level of modern neuroscience (dualism does not deny the brain exists and has a function), and not nowhere (making its second substance a pointless supposition), but at the level of parapsychological experimentation; and are materialists therefore very interested in such experiments, since they have such a scientific import? No, they dismiss them all, by and large, as not worth bothering with on the grounds that they would be bound to be uninformative because materialism is the case (which is about as intelligent as believing in Jesus just because it says that you should in the Bible).And the similar dismissal of all reports of miracles (which would be a better analogy for seeing an orange), along with more common feelings that life is meaningful, is circular because it is circular to prefer an alternative explanation (prefer it to the point of calling it irrational to believe in God because one sees physical evidence of God in the form of a miracle) just because it exists within a materialism that only fails to be positively refuted because you ignore all counter-evidence on the grounds of just such a preference. It is obvious that when a theist reasons in just such a way (and too many of them do) and you spot them doing so, then you jump at the chance to tell them that they are being irrational, that they clearly do not even care about reasons, that they have already decided to believe something nice and to rationalise in whatever way defends their belief. It is not that I think that they are right to do that. I think they are wrong when they do that; and so is anyone who does that. And furthermore, they are wrong because there is an ought in thought, something which atheism and materialism will have a hard time allowing, in their ultimately meaningless world. The logic that allows God is the logic that allows free choices that are neither deterministic nor random. You have probably not heard much about it. You have probably heard of standard mathematics, and of how powerful it is. But you complain about religious indoctrination! How ironic.Religious education is justified, ultimately, on the grounds of religious experience. To argue against the former, you must undermine claims of the latter. How about this: God is not like an orange. Oranges exist. Therefore God does not. Therefore no one ever saw Him (or Her). Silly? Exactly.

  23. Nal (the first poster) the implication of your argument is this: ‘A Being, God, which no-one has ever said is detectable through the five senses, is not detectable through the five senses. Thus, I cannot possibly believe in him.’ It’s not a terribly strong argument is it 🙂 Mystics perceive God with their ‘hearts’ (Hindus call it the inner-eye) something you might vaguely vaguely understand as the soul even though you may not ‘believe’ in it – ‘if it be observed that the term heart as used above does not seem to conform to its customary acceptation among ordinary speakers of the language, I must grant this. In the context, the term denotes not the mind, but rather the faculty that perceives what is beyond created things, in the world of the spirit, which is a realm unto itself. If one demands that the existence of this faculty be demonstrated, the answer – however legitimate the request – cannot exceed, “Go to masters of the discipline [Sufism] train, and you will be shown.” ‘Unsatisfying though this reply may be, it does not seem to differ in principle from answers that would be given, for example, to a non-specialist regarding the proof for a particular proposition in theoretical physics or symbolic logic. Nor is such an answer an objection to the in-principle publicly observable character of observation statements in these disciplines, but rather a limitation pertaining to the nature of the case and the questioner, one that he may accept, reject, or do something about”. I’m afraid Nal is guilty of a horrendous, fallacious display of gratuitous scientism when he says ‘If God had some mechanism, a force perhaps, that can bridge the supernatural/natural boundary then Science would be able to detect that force. Until Science detects that mechanism as it exists in the natural domain, the theist just has an active imagination.’ (capitalisation mine)No Nal, it is you who has an overheated imagination. Ever hear of metaphysics? Yes that’s -meta-physics . META – physics ? Almighty ‘Science’ detects matter my dear boy. Not the Spirit. You are a sadder example of the (apparently very effective) process of brainwashing into belief in Scientism and naturalism so prevalent in much of the world these days, (especially in state schools Dr. Law!!!). God’s ‘force’ that bridges the ‘supernatural/natural boundary’ ( a boundary that only seems to exist, in this ridiculously spacialistic and crude conception, for a-spiritual people anyway) is the fact that the universe is meaningful – any scientific observation statement we make can only be made because of our perception that the content of our perception means something. The ultimate refutation to the blind, brute matter hypothesis. (It is only because reality is meaningful that we are able to specify it as ‘blind’ ‘brute’ nature in the first place Not very blind, or brutish!!!) Scientism is merely a projection of inner barrenness on the part of its modern atheistic adherents. A crude reduction of possible knowledge to boundaries themselves only specified through meaning, the door, if only opened, to transcendent meaning, and the world of the spirit. God help us from those who would deny their own humanity in the name of something called ‘humanism’.

  24. Stephen: Thanks again for your comments on my logic analogy (my reply to your orange analogy); it’s nice to find an intelligent person interested in this debate, on either side. I know that sounds arrogant of me, but am I to blame for the intellectual sloppiness of others? I am, according to:Chimp, who accuses me of complete hypocrisy regarding religious ethics. (Most forms of the monotheisms persecute gays – still.)How do the actions of homophobes who find a convenient excuse in the Bible make me a hypocrite? When they find a bare-faced contradiction in the Bible (between two numbers, in a book called “Numbers” of all things) they do explain it away as a typo, even though the Bible is infallible when they want it to be; and when they find something that even they can’t believe is literally true (because their idea of ‘literally true’ is as prosaic, mundane and frankly inappropriate as that of most atheists) they regard that bit as a fable, but the homophobic bits? That’s God’s intructions to us? I don’t think so; so, how am I hypocritical?The thing about homophobia is, lots of people were that. The atheistic Soviets, for example, thought it degenerate. In fact, lots of stout working-class socialists were homophobes, I seem to recall. One of their favourite criticisms of priests was that clearly they were all gay (and hypocritical about it), as many of them were of course. And lots of Darwinists could have found excuses for their homophobia in the way that homosexuality hardly seems designed to produce offspring. Incidentally, the Soviets were also good at anti-semitism; maybe the Jews were too Judaic (a form of monotheism) for them.Anticant says: All three Abrahamic monotheistic religions have a serious charge sheet to answer. But there was a more serious charge sheet in the hundreds of thousands of years before those religions appeared. And even humanism owes most of its good points (people matter, people before profits, the truth matters) to theistic insights and justifications. Can humanism retain those good points when times get tough? Time will tell, but theism predicts not (and indeed, people often turn to God when they have a problem with evil), that then it will be humanist eat humanist, and the meaningless cosmos take the hindmost.I may be wrong but (and this is not a straw-Atheist, but an educated guess) you may be thinking along these lines: if the Bible says anything much about a real God then that God must be behind it, and that God would be omnipotent so it would then all be true; but parts of it are clearly false, so the Bible says little if anything about God; and I defend the rationality of allowing some weight to accounts of revelation, so I ought to defend those who quote the Bible in defence of their homophobia. But I think the Bible is a potentially informative record of lots of possible things, not necessarily excluding some revelations; that we should look at it as we would look at anything (including the evidence for relativity, you’d be surprised). I ask myself, Why would God not write what He wants us to know in big fiery letters in the sky, and then point our eyes towards that? But I don’t want to be accused to setting up a straw-Atheist, so I’ll leave answering that fully for now.Sorry about the long comments…

  25. Anonymous, your …which serve simply to make predictions about the ultimate result. Things like “if such a set exists it must have less than 5 members”… was witty, but false because that is not a prediction. It is a conditional, claiming something about one possibility. A prediction might be, such a set exists. A conjecture, for example, is a prediction of sorts. And mathematics does include conjectures, but only potentially (only when it is believed that they are proved should they be thought of as being part of mathematics). Mind you, an intuitionist might see things very differently. But even so, could that affect whether knowing mathematical axioms or seeing an orange is the better analogy for experiencing God?

  26. “There was a more serious charge sheet in the hundreds of thousands of years before [the Abrahamic] religions appeared.” So what? It is those religions, and their practical consequences, which we are primarily affected by now.

  27. …so, if such charge-sheets are any guide, then those religions (or their common causes) caused a great improvement in our lot, via religious conflict and unworldly academia, to science and democracy, over time, and at the present time the Western Monotheisms are not that bad compared with the Western Atheisms. But do you really care about such charge-sheets? If you did you’d care about making our children’s ones better, and how is that to happen? It happened in the past because monotheistic fanatics (who would die for their beliefs) destroyed the pagan empires, and then reorganised monotheism by being no less fanatical in their heresies (anyone more cynical would have just given in, as people tended to do in the past, and as they tend to do now). But how will it happen in the future? By regarding all religious people as irrational, or by encouraging the liberal and intelligent ones, by understanding them and how right they are? Even if you get atheistic science to be widely accepted, you won’t make people good that way. Most likely you would just get a new irrationality, for the same old reasons, and who would turn that around? Professional materialists pursuing their own research programmes? But most importantly, what if atheism is not true? You just seem to assume that it is, and that really isn’t very good at all. You should provide arguments that there is no God. Stephen claimed to have one. I objected to his reasoning, and to counter that you reminded me of the horrors that people do. Do you really think that that defends Stephen’s argument? Is that your superior rationality? But it’s also worth remembering that the worst lists of horrors were made up by people who didn’t want to hurt their heads arguing, who knew that they were wrong but didn’t care, because they could scare people. People impressed by such lists did their bidding, and still do, and with gusto. But I read the news, and very few of those horror-stories are about religious schools killing thousands of people in order to make a bigger profit and so survive.

  28. “You should provide arguments that there is no God.” One can’t prove a negative. You should provide arguments that there is a God.

  29. Hi anticant. Actually, you can prove a negative. Even a negative existential, e.g. there are no round squares; there are no married bachelors.We can also establish pretty conclusively (if not “prove”) that there is no God. I’ve done so, I believe (the God of Eth). Ditto fairies.Note BTW that “You can’t prove a negative” is a negative, so itself unprovable, if correct.Enigman has posted lots of points, so rather than reply here I’ll do another post…

  30. Enigman has commented on previous post, suggesting (paraphrasing) that if we can have knowledge of maths and logic a priori, why not God?There’s a lot needs unpacking here. But let’s make a start. First of, what sort of truths are mathematical truths? Are they made true by, say, corresponding mathematical facts? Are they trivial – mere consequences of stipulations we’ve laid down? Or what? If the latter, well, Enigman’s anaology fails, as no special faculty is required to know trivial truths.The analogy between religious knowledge of a God who exists independently of us and knowledge of mathematical truths only works if there also exists a mathematical reality out independently of us (e.g. a mathematical Platonic heaven), a realty about which we then can, by some mysterious, non-empirical means, acquire knowledge (e.g. perhaps by recollection of what we knew before we were born, as in Plato’s Meno; or perhaps by virtue of some quasi-perceptual faculty linking us up to this mathematical reality). So, for Enigman’s analogy to work, Enigman would need first to establish there is such a Platonic or other mathematical reality (I’m not even sure he thinks there is, in fact). That’s a big ask.

  31. “there are no round squares; there are no married bachelors.”These are just semantic quibbles – as is so much of this ‘debate’.We began, remember, by questioning whether Ibrahim’s notions of education are valid. Most people here seemed to think they are not. It would be much more worthwhile to discuss what we SHOULD teach children about religion? Perhaps you could start a new thread with your views on that?

  32. Enigman – Perhaps the example of “If suh a set exits it must have at least five eebers” was a little abbreviated. I should have spelt out that this sort of thing has often occured before the existence of the proposed set has been proven and well in advance of a catalogue of its members. You are right that in this case it is conditional but I think that it also qualifies as a prediction in your sense. (The “Such a set exists” type)You then went on to say:”But even so, could that affect whether knowing mathematical axioms or seeing an orange is the better analogy for experiencing God?” If your analogy depends upon mathematics having little or no predictive power then I think it does weaken the case.Mathematics is also objective. A proof can be published and verified by any who have the time and skill to do so. That having been said I quite like the analogy in some ways. If you liken the experience of god to the “eureka” moments that mathematicians get when seeing the solution to a thorny problem , I think this is rather descriptive.Religious experience seems rather like the dreams of a mathematician though. In sleep he has a vision of the ultimate theorem and finds in elation that every step in its derivation is obvious and sound. On waking she is strangely unable to recall the details though; scrawled notes on her notepad (kept by the bed just in case) are found to be provable twaddle. The memory of the feeling however persists.hlfk

  33. There is a sense in which mathematics “makes predictions”.If I use maths to work out how many 1ft tiles I need to tile my 12ft by 12ft bathroom floor, I will find the tiles fit exactly. Calculate according to some other set of rules and I’ll almost certainly end up with too many or too few tiles.

  34. /pages/content/hales/articlepdf/proveanegative.pdf

  35. It seems to me, Stephen, that the maths just says that 12 times 12 is 144. Suppose there is an annoying child, hiding in your bathroom on the day of the tiling, and intent upon stealing a tile. Then mistaking 12 twelves for 145 would have led to a better prediction about the tiling. The supposition is improbable of course, and certainly, getting the maths right helps us to predict things. But then that only helps my analogy, if theism helps us to predict things too. Joan of Arc prayed and the winds, which were not naturally variable at the time, acquired a more favourable direction. Lots of evidence for that. Atheism would have predicted that they would almost certainly not change. The example is unusual of course, and nothing like it is likely to happen to you. But then, some people are very bad at maths, and don’t find it very useful when making predictions. Your tiling example therefore seems to contribute little to your argument that it would be irrational to believe the evidence of even one’s own senses, were they to present one with prima facie evidence for theism. (Of course, if I’m irrational then that does not mean that your argument was not strengthened by it; and indeed, according to your argument I am irrational. Hmm… A draw perhaps?)

  36. “12” and “144” are merely words in a conventional series of names enabling us to count quantities of actual things such as tiles. There is no Platonic universal “12” in the sky, or anywhere [although there may be a perfect archetypal Platonic universal tile.]As for poor Joan of Arc, the wind didn’t change in a favourable direction for her when she was on her funeral pyre. A miracle then would have been highly opportune, but it didn’t occur.

  37. For the non-religious person, ‘truth’ is related to testable evidence and notions of veracity. But if “12” and “144” are merely words in a conventional series of names enabling us to count quantities of actual things such as tiles, then what is the quantity that “2” enables us to count? Personally I would say that it is 2, where two things of some kind are one thing of that kind and another, different thing of that kind, and nothing else of that kind.Surely “two” is a word, but that does not address what 2 is. I would say that talk of 2 is indirect talk of pair-sets (so long as you do not take me to be advocating any particular theory of sets). I would not say that there was any Platonic universal “2” in the sky, or anywhere. Although “2” is clearly a token of a type, and also a type of such tokens; and very different to 2, which is a number, and primarily and essentially a cardinal number and not an ordinal number. We use ordinal numbers to count cardinal numbers of things. But you know, none of this (and certainly not my reluctance to entertain located universals) helps your position. Similarly you say:As for poor Joan of Arc, the wind didn’t change in a favourable direction for her when she was on her funeral pyre. A miracle then would have been highly opportune, but it didn’t occur. So what if it did not (and anyway, a quick but heroic entry into Heaven would have been preferred by her even to a teleportation into somewhere you might have preferred, like a nice job in an English castle; and a wind-change that helped her to kill the English would have been preferred by her to a wind-change that helped her personally to avoid one of the dangers of war), that does not mean that the wind did not change earlier. You will soon, I feel sure, be repeating your charge that theists ignore the good arguments of the atheists, and just believe what they began with. I would remind you of your own view of truth.

  38. Enigman, you are awfully good at reading other peoples’ minds, aren’t you? You talk as if you know what went on in Joan of Arc’s mind better than she did, and ditto about me.Your believing what you like doesn’t alter my perception of my own reality.

  39. No anticant, I’m not very good at reading people’s minds, but I neither claimed nor implied that I was (although as it happens you did do what I guessed you would, presumably deliberately). In fact, you are the one who claimed to know what was favourable for Joan, which was something clearly at odds with what historians tells us about her actions. I based my beliefs about her beliefs on the historical record of her actions (an assertion you can check if you like). But how about explicitly addressing the points I was clearly trying to make, just to empirically demonstrate that you can? Or is your belief that you are right good enough?You are not, I would hazard to venture, that good at understanding the words of others where they do not express similar perceptions of reality to your own. You seem to be antipathetic to scientific methodology, for all that you find scientific theories favourably interpretable. You seem to be trying to win a debate by irrational means (antagonising the opposition etc.?), and if so I would remind you of your own hatred of irrationalisms (not reading your mind there, just reading your words). Or did you just mean, by “irrationalisms,” theories other than those you favour?If not then, in defense of my claim (above), I would present your response (in the comments above) to my earlier: “We can all see that aeroplanes fly, but that is engineering, not science. Not only can we not see that time is relativistic, or that everything is made of superstrings (or that we evolved from minerals), even the experts disagree about such things.” You said: Are you saying that engineering doesn’t have a scientific basis? I don’t think most engineers would agree with you! It would not have been too hard (e.g. via the rational application of a principle of linguistic charity) to see that I was saying that what makes aeroplanes fly is the selective application by engineers of whatever they have to hand, which is usually (at least in these parts of this world) very scientific of course, but need not be (and if not the planes would still fly), and is in any case explicitly contrasted with the sort of experimental, cutting-edge, research science that goes on in science departments (rather than engineering industries) in order to investigate the physical structure of reality.In short, the fact that aeroplanes fly lends very little rational corroboration to your favourite interpretation of the mathematical models that theoretical physicists (not engineers) are now using to probe the spatiotemporal aspects of particles (and similarly the more difficult details of neuroscience, despite what you clearly wish was the case). (Do you rise at that last phrase? But such are your phrases.) Anyway, despite your (predicted) repetition of your belief about my mind, my beliefs are no less constrained by my perceptions of reality than yours are (as to how constrained they are by reality, that is rather the question that you keep begging).

  40. Sorry anticant, that was (as my earlier comment had been) a bit bitchy of me. (Please put my tone down to my personal problems; and as for the content, it now occurs to me that the whole area of education is horrendously complicated anyway.)

  41. We all have our personal problems. I certainly do! Insofar as I can fathom your latest outburst, there’s more mind reading and childish abuse in it than solid criticism of my position – which I don’t think you understand, anyway. I do NOT have a ‘need to be right’ – see my post with that title in my Arena. I do NOT ‘hate irrationalism’ – I recognise that much if not most of everyone’s thinking is irrational, even when they regard themselves as reasonable beings. What I DO hate is the intolerance and fanaticism of some religious believers who ‘know’ they are right because God or Allah or whoever else in the sky tells them so, and by that token feel entitled to impose their beliefs upon others, if necessary by violence.It is not just the whole area of education, but the whole area of knowledge, that is horrendously complicated. Has it occured to you that the ‘doubting Thomases’ who ask for tangible proofs are in fact more modestly humble than those who claim access to ‘supernatural’ revelations?

  42. I see now that this is where you are wrong, you do not have the imagination to conceive of your conceptual limits or ‘interpretive comunity’.Interpretive communities are a theoretical concept stemming from reader-response criticism and invented by Stanley Fish. They appeared in an article by Fish in 1976 entitled “Interpreting the Variorum”. Fish’s theory states that a text does not have meaning outside of a set of cultural assumptions regarding both what the characters mean and how they should be interpreted. This cultural context often includes authorial intent, though it is not limited to it. Fish claims that we interpret texts because we are part of an interpretive community that gives us a particular way of reading a text. Furthermore, he claims, we cannot know whether someone is a part of our interpretive community or not, because any act of communication that we could engage in to tell whether we are part of the same interpretive community would have to be interpreted. That is, because we cannot escape our interpretive community, we can never really know its limits.The idea has been very influential in reader-response criticism, though it has also been very controversial. It is often interpreted as a relativistic standpoint that “words have no meaning,” though this is not what Fish means. Quite the opposite, Fish is a staunch advocate of his own readings of various texts. Rather, he means to point out that readings of a text are culturally constructed. His point can be compared to that of Louis Althusser on ideology, or to Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics.

  43. anticant: Yes, that has occurred to me (and had you understood my position, as you tell me to understand yours, that much at least would have been obvious). And re your “I do NOT ‘hate irrationalism’,” I took that from a comment of yours on these recent posts of Stephen about religious experience. It’s a bit ironic that you tell me to understand your position, by reading your stuff, and then accuse me of pretending to mind-read when I take you at your word, which you then deny. I suppose that you imagine yourself to be winning a lot of arguments this way! Nice for you.You say that you like truth and that theists wishfully think; but then that you don’t care about truth, but about practical consequences! OK, I’ll follow your shifts; but now note that the practical consequences of science come at us via the applications of technology in the global market-place, and there is a catalogue of suffering there, I think, to rival any catalogue of suffering apparently caused by religion. Sure, science could be used wisely, and the problem is socio-political; but my point is that religious experiences could be too.It is at least clear that a blanket response of anti-science to global warming and nuclear threats would be foolish. And while you may well believe that all I have to do, to see how right you are, is to read your words as you intended them to be read (you may believe that these philosophical arguments are by the by), if you do (note I said “if”) then I would refer you back to the question (of yours) that I answered at the start of this comment (this probably pointless comment).

  44. Enigman, I do my best not to hate any human being, though that’s difficult given the vile and horrendous things many of them do. I don’t hate irrationalism per se – because, as I said earlier, it’s a large [often too large] component of everybody’s thinking. What I do hate is the irrationalism which inspires intolerance, hatred, violence, bloodshed, and cruelty. I hope that is now clear to you.I had also hoped you understood that I am not interested in ‘winning arguments’ – I leave that to combative people such as yourself. I discuss these issues in order to clarify them for myself, and hopefully sometimes for others. However, I shall be taking a rest from blogging for a while, so will leave you to pursue your ideas with Stephen and others.As for inconsistency, we all contradict ourselves now and then. Anyway, I am in good company – Emerson said “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”, andWhitman said “do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).”Happy Easter!

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