Friday, June 25, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - Experience Revisited

Last week I talked about Dawkins' arguments against the validity of religious experiences. After further consideration (and some helpful conversations with friends) I realize that I wasn't exactly being fair to Dawkins' argument. Since I give Dawkins such a hard time whenever he isn't being fair, I owe you (and him) an apology. I'm sorry for presenting a straw man of Dawkins' argument.

Now I'm going to try and restate Dawkins' original argument, and this time I hope to do it justice.

To begin with, it is obvious that most people's personal experiences are valid most of the time. However, there are cases where individuals can be mistaken. We sometimes see or hear things that aren't there. Some people routinely see or hear things that aren't there. Still, by and large, most of us can trust our senses most of of the time.

One way we test to see if our experiences are valid is to wait and see if the experience persists. We also check with the people around us to see if they experience the same things we do. Using these methods, and others like them, we can deal with the occasional bizarre experience. So long as we know that our experience is mostly valid, we can easily weed out the few experiences that are invalid.

Science makes careful use of these types of corrective procedures. Scientists take careful notes, and use instruments to make quantifiable measurements. They confer with their peers to make sure that their observations or experiments produce similar results. If they don't, then the scientists try to figure out what is causing the discrepancy and try again.

Religious experiences generally lack this kind of verification. They often aren't well documented and they often lack confirmation from another observer. Certainly, none of them are persistent or experienced by everyone. For this reason, it is reasonable to dismiss such experience.

That is my understanding of Dawkins' argument. Having said that, I still think there is a problem with it.

The main problem is this: religious experiences are too widespread. If you add together all the people of every religious stripe who claim to have witnessed some kind of supernatural phenomena, you'd come up with a number easily in the millions, if not tens of millions. If we assume that all of these people are seeing and hearing things that aren't there, that creates a problem.

I'm not sure if he realizes it, but Dawkins is making the claim that millions of otherwise normal people are functional schizophrenics*. They are considered "sane" only because their hallucinations do not prevent them from functioning in polite society.

The claim that millions of people see and hear things that aren't actually there does speak to the issue of whether or not experience really is a valid way to gain knowledge. After all, if it's reasonable to claim that millions of Christians all share similar hallucinations when they claim to hear from God, how can we be sure that millions of cell biologists aren't experiencing something similar when they look through an electron microscope?

The argument Dawkins is making has to be carefully considered. I think you could still make the claim that scientific knowledge is reliable, even if millions of scientists experience occasional hallucinations, but it would be a difficult claim to defend.

More to the point, I don't think that Dawkins has even considered the possibility that he and millions of his fellow scientists might be experiencing occasional hallucinations. He takes it for granted that what he sees with his eyes and hears with his ears is almost always completely trustworthy. I imagine he holds similar beliefs about most of his peers.

Which brings me to the second objection I have with this argument. He doesn't give a any reason why religious experiences should be singled out for skepticism. Plenty of us have private experiences; things that are only seen by ourselves and perhaps one other person. How can we be sure that those experiences are real?

If we hold them to the same standard we would a vision of the Virgin Mary, then we have to conclude that they aren't real. There just isn't enough evidence to prove that that dinner alone or that romantic walk on the beach really happened.

I think it's more reasonable to assume that those religious experiences are just as valid as any other private experience. They might not provide enough evidence to prove God's existence, but they certainly provide enough evidence to make the God hypothesis seem reasonable.

* This is an awkward phrase, and I might be misusing the term Schizophrenia, but it's the best I can come up with. How do you describe someone who is sane, except for the fact that they sometimes see or hear things that aren't there? I don't think there's a word for that.

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