The academic year has now drawn to a close. I’ve been accordingly occupied with a number of issues in relation to the finale season, and of course there have been other life transitions to distract me lately, but I’ve had plenty of philosophizing on my mind that I’ve been planning to write about. Let’s see if over the next week I can get caught up a bit here. Now I have no more excuses for not working some of these things through here.
One of the most important things from last month that I want to do some “thinking aloud” about here is what I was trying to say in the last university post-graduate seminar I attended this month. It was my turn to offer a critique of my colleague Lari’s presentation, and I don’t think I really did it justice. I also believe that the subject in question deserves to be discussed with a broader audience than in our little research group. Lari will be making other public presentations of his material, but I hope he doesn’t mind my spreading my take on it to the little collection of readers I have here.
The basic topic of Lari’s paper was the alternative strategies that Christians (and other theists) can use to counter the most recent variations on the Occam’s Razor argument: the claim that all god-concepts can be quite thoroughly explained in terms of the operations of a Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device, that no further explanation is necessary for them, and that they should therefore be dismissed as irrelevant.
As the argument goes, we humans are instinctively prone to attribute random occurrences to some sort of agent or intelligent being. Not only are we ready to assume that consciousness exists outside of ourselves; we are prone to see evidence of conscious activities in all sorts of places where, on closer examination, we can actually be relatively certain that they don’t exist: What looked like a monster posed to attack me from my closet was actually just a pile of dirty laundry. The noises coming from the attic are not ghosts, but old timbers contracting as they cool in the night air. No one stole my keys; I just misplaced them.
In terms of evolutionary theory, it is better for our imaginations to be hyperactive in this area than for them to be insufficiently active to identify potential enemies and allies. As with a fire alarm at home or in a public building, it is better to have dozens of false alarms than to have the alarm system “not notice” one actual fire. Thus our mental programming, designed to detect other “agents” in our environments, tends to be a bit high strung, causing us to see intentionality and strategic thought in many things that we later realize were entirely random or accidental matters. The question from there is, how well are we able to identify all of these “false positive readings” for things we take to be the activity of other minds after the fact; and if these tend to go undetected, might they essentially explain where all of our beliefs in a spirit world “out there” come from?
In its most aggressive form, this argument asserts that the most common intuitive reasons people have for believing in God all come back to dependence on their ability to detect “agency” –– the results of conscious actions committed by others –– in the world around us; an ability which is inherently flawed. Therefore, since spiritual beliefs are easily explained away as the products of the buggy “agency detection devices” that are programmed into each of us, it is most rational to reject all spiritual beliefs out of hand.
Lari’s argues, quite fluently, that in broad terms there are two strategies for committed theists to use in countering this sort of argument: We can either claim that we have entirely separate –– and more “respectable” –– reasons for our beliefs in various spiritual entities and phenomena, or we can claim that our agency detection device programming is not as faulty as its critics are prone to believe. The former style of argument he refers to as an internalist-evidentialist strategy; the latter, an externalist-reliablist strategy –– as good of names as any. From there he contends that both strategies can be useful, but whereas the evidentialist strategy makes it easier to construct reasonable sounding counter arguments, the reliablist strategy while more difficult to defend, may provide a more useful tool in terms of defending the faith of the average active church member, given the number of believers whose faith really is based on a combination of traditions they have been socialized into and the function of their agency detection devices.
As far as he goes with that, I have little argument with Lari’s analysis. My problem is with the way in which these arguments attempt to address epistemological questions in abstraction from their ethical implications. I categorically reject the idea that we can search for some ultimate truth about the existence of God separately from practical questions of how we should live and what the purpose of our lives should be. The whole issue of “respectability” within epistemology as an end unto itself –– as a holy calling regarding which philosophy takes on the role of a priesthood of sorts –– is effectively a continuation of the Hegelian tradition, and I firmly believe that Kierkegaard’s critique of this tradition makes a legitimate point, especially when it comes to questions of what it means to believe in God.
There are two particularly famous Kierkegaard quotes that sum up the issue rather succinctly:
“If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought… then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.” (Journals, 1844)
“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose… to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” (Journals, 1835. Emphasis added.)
Kierkegaard’s primary critique of Hegel concerned the old German’s lack of basic humility in his epistemological perspective. Acknowledging our fallibility is a very necessary starting point in these matters. There are two challenging aspects of the philosophical search for truth that we, as humans, are never going to overcome: our finitude and our biased personal perspectives. Any honest philosophical inquiry needs to keep these limitations in mind throughout the process; not claiming to have found infinity within oneself, nor to have found a level of truth that isn’t based on what we can discover within our human limitations. Those who turn to either philosophy or religion as a means of trying to escape life’s uncertainties and ambiguities fundamentally miss this point.
If, however, we set somewhat more modest goals for ourselves of determining what truths are worth acting on, and what sorts of actions are justified on such bases, both philosophy and religion can provide useful guidelines for choosing a course of action. (Many will disagree with me about the usefulness of either. For some of them philosophy might provide a useful framework for discussing the matter at least. For the rest, c’est la vie if they disagree.)
To follow on Lari’s choice of hypothetical character names, let me illustrate this with a story of Jill and Jack: This couple first met at a student gathering one fine spring day, and over the subsequent weeks they began dating. This took some courage for Jill in particular, as she was just getting over the rather bitter ending of a previous dysfunctional romance with Joe. Jack, however, showed himself to be a kind, respectful, funny, intelligent and seemingly emotionally mature sort of guy, so in spite of her wounds and fears Jill decided to keep seeing him. Then one night Jill had an especially vivid dream, in which she saw herself and Jack as an old couple snuggling together on a porch swing as their grandchildren arrived for a weekend visit. Jill believed that this dream was somehow prophetic; that she and Jack were just meant to be together.
When she told Jack about this dream though he seemed a bit skeptical, and perhaps a bit intimidated even, as though his new girlfriend might have a few screws looser than he had first realized. Nevertheless he deeply appreciated her otherwise quick wit, her sweet smile, her gentle affectionate nature, and her overall sense of style, so he too wanted to keep the relationship going. Some months later an occasion arose where Jack thought it would be appropriate to take Jill to meet his family. Jack’s parents were immediately smitten with Jill, and made every effort to make her feel completely at home with them. Jack’s mother, June, in particular wanted to get in some one-on-one time with this sweet thing her son had brought home, so she asked Jill to come help in the kitchen. While the two ladies were in there alone together, June suddenly became rather confused mid-sentence and then collapsed on the floor. Jill instantly reacted to the situation with complete composure, kneeling down next to the older woman and trying to revive her. June soon came back to consciousness and apologized, making excuses of being overly excited and not having eaten properly that day, but Jill could see that things were not entirely right. She immediately yelled for Jack to come in and told him, “I believe your mother is having a stroke. We need to get her to the hospital right away!” As it turned out, Jill’s diagnosis was entirely correct, and getting June into immediate treatment prevented any major damage from resulting from the incident. She was thus able to make a quick and complete recovery. Jill’s rapid and well-informed reaction had saved her from suffering paralysis and loss of speech, and may have even saved her life.
Jack’s gratitude to Jill for saving his mother in this way seriously intensified his feelings for her and his commitment to her. Two months later he asked her to marry him. She enthusiastically agreed.
Now the question is, was it wise for these two to believe that they had found a true love that was just meant to be?
In Jill’s case her original decision to entrust herself to Jack was based on a naïve belief in the power of dreams. To try to defend the general validity of seeking guidance from one’s dreams is a rather difficult and problematic matter to say at the least. This can be associated with all manner of superstitions that can ultimately cause all sorts of problems in one’s life, to say nothing of the relational conflicts that could arise if Jack wouldn’t happen to share such beliefs with her. On the other hand though Jill’s dream might still be seen by a non-believer in the magical power of such things as a subconscious indication of how much healing Jack had succeeded in bringing about in her life. Thus even if there was nothing prophetic about it, the dream could be taken as a sign that he really was good for her. Her epistemological premise for believing in the value of the relationship may well have been flawed, but it is possible that the conclusion which it brought her to could have been the right one, and perhaps even “true” in a practical sense.
Jack’s more careful and skeptical consideration of the value of their relationship may be easier to rationally defend on some levels. It was not dependent on any magical concepts or superstitious beliefs as such. To the less romantically inclined he could justify his decision to marry Jill on the basis of the significant practical value of having her around, as seen in the way she saved his mother. Did that prove beyond doubt that Jill was the ideal woman for him and that they were destined to live “happily ever after”? In itself of course not. Telling that story to Joe would by no means be enough to convince him that he had made a mistake in letting Jill go. But even so, this experience, taken together with Jack’s other reasons for appreciating Jill, provided him with as good a rational justification for making a romantic commitment as people can really expect to find these days.
None of this excludes the possibility that within a few years Jack and Jill would end up driving each other crazy and getting divorced. If that were to happen inevitably both of them would have to reconsider the thought processes that led them to believe in their relationship to begin with. If either were naïve enough to believe that their reasons for choosing each other were matters of absolute rational certainty, a marital crisis could end up shaking their personal existential foundations in really horrible ways. But even in that case we wouldn’t have enough information to say that marriage was a mistake for them. One or the other might well have made later mistakes to screw up what otherwise would have been a beautiful thing for both of them. Whatever the case their epistemological premises for believing that they belonged together were not the best determinant of the validity of the proposition, nor a particularly strong indicator one way or the other regarding the strength of their future marriage. (There’s also a lot to be said these days for people daring to love each other in spite of all of the risks involved, but that’s another essay.)
So how does this relate to the question of our grounds for believing in God? One aspect of the matter is that neither an externalist-reliablist strategy nor an internalist-evidentialist strategy –– neither “a sense of God’s presence” nor attempts to prove His existence on the basis of historical events and the like –– is entirely foolproof. Our means of knowing by way of such means are always going to be flawed, and we need to acknowledge that. But more importantly, we need to acknowledge that faith can have significant value even when it doesn’t have an epistemologically “respectable” basis. A lot really depends on what you do with that faith.
Let’s go back to Jack and Jill. One significant risk for their relationship would be if Jill would somehow start expecting Jack to live up to all of her wildest dreams –– daydreams and night dreams. Getting angry at him for not living up to such an impossible standard would be a certain recipe for disaster in their relationship. Just as bad would be if Jack were to start seeing preserving their families’ health as one of Jill’s essential roles in the relationship, thus (perhaps secretly) feeling bitter against her whenever a family member would get seriously ill. Those aren’t the sort of things that their decision to join their lives together should have been based on, but then again many couples have married based on similarly irrational expectations. If, however, based on their differing epistemological premises, they were able to form a mature, caring, supportive commitment to each other’s happiness, the inherent flaws of their respective epistemological processes need not become an issue.
Likewise when it comes to faith, magical expectations and false certainties can do all sorts of damage. Thus I believe that addressing these practical concerns may in fact be more important than justifying the foundations for one’s faith.
In Lari’s seminar paper he mentioned an old quote from a particular Finnish “Christian Democrat” politician that he and I both happen to be acquainted with. Some years ago this fellow made a public statement to the effect that God had caused a particular volcanic eruption in Iceland as a way of getting Europeans’ attention. This sort of rhetoric rang true with enough people here were this guy has now been elected as a member of parliament here! I would pretty much expect such foolishness in the United States, but not in Finland. I know this fellow to be fairly well-meaning and relatively harmless character overall, but the idea that he might seriously believe that his job is now to try to pass laws to keep Finns from doing “sinful” things so that God doesn’t cause natural disasters… is more than a little disturbing to me.
The question is not one of whether this politician is epistemologically justified in believing in God, but whether he is justified in politically attacking what he sees as the sinfulness of others on that basis. Or perhaps that question needs to be expanded a bit: Does he feel called to fight against things like greed, hate-mongering, lack of caring for the poor, and the destruction of the environment, because of the ways in which such sins can be seen to have a destructive impact on the lives of others; or is he more interested in keeping too many people from enjoying the wrong sorts of sex as a means of magically preventing earthquakes and volcanoes and such? From there comes the question of what sort of justifications various sorts of believers would have in voting for (or against) a political party characterized by such positions.
By Kierkegaard’s standards these would more important questions to consider than that of whether or not, in the abstract, one is justified in believing in God. At the very least I am convinced that abstract arguments regarding justifications for believing in God have little value without their ethical implications being taken into consideration. From there I’m prone to see the internalist-evidentialist vs. externalist-reliablist discussion as a matter of relatively minor concern.
But then again, if some academic theologians are able to get grants to study such things I wish them all the best with their endeavors. 🙂