Friday, March 28, 2008

King's Philosophical Theology Seminar

I am giving a short presentation on the evil god challenge at 11am 29th April. Details and full programme here.

King's Philosophical Theology Seminar

28-29 April 2008
King's College London, Strand, River Room

A workshop providing a forum of discussion for work in progress in
philosophical theology. Organized by the *Centre for the History of
Philosophical Theology*.

Please contact Dr Maria Rosa Antognazza (

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Religious experience - more on the telescope analogy

Following on from the telescope analogy - here's a further couple of points.

1. The "fuzzy image" move

First, some will say (have said, in fact) that the faculty by which we experience the divine is not perfectly transparent, but hazy and misty. That is why there is so much disagreement between believers (be they ancient Norse, or ancient Greeks, or ancient Mayans, or modern day Buddhists, or whatever) about what is experienced.

2. The appeal to "training" and "experts"

Second, just like the use of, say, sonic imaging equipment, or a primitive telescope, such as Galileo's, perceivers need to be trained. Acquiring the ability to discern a baby in the swirling, milky images produced by a scanner requires years of practice. Without this practice, causal observers may "see" all sorts of things that are not there.

Indeed, while we are not justified in trusting the testimony of untrained users of ultra-sound scanners, the testimony of trained, expert users can be relied on.

So why not trained, expert God-sensors?

My response to the "fuzzy image" move

Well, yes, this would explain at least some of the disagreement between observers. But it doesn't make it reasonable to trust in the deliverances of this supposed "faculty" by which God is allegedly perceived.

Note, first of all, that this sort of appeal to the misty, hazy nature of the faculty - it's very much "through a glass darkly" - in order to explain inaccuracy and error is a standard move of psychics and other deluded folk to explain their mistakes. Here's Tony Youens, psychic debunker, on psychics:

An advantage here is that no one expects the reader, whatever the method, to be able to come up with laser-like precision. Communication with the dead is, after all, not like using a telephone. For example, the psychic may fondle your watch (psychometry) and attempt to tune in to its vibrations. It’s not easy, so they begin cautiously, ‘I’m getting something about a man… called Michael…. “Mick”, or is it “Mike”? I feel a kindly presence… very caring… could be difficult at times but generally has his heart in the right place.’

Of course, when they get it wrong, psychics regularly appeal to the hazy nature of the medium with which they are working to explain their error.

When made by psychics, I don't find, even for a minute, these sorts of moves and evasions remotely convincing. Nor do I when they are made by other supernaturalists - i.e. the religious.

Why not? Well, in the case of psychics, we lack any solid, corroborating evidence for what they claim to experience. Plus there's a great deal of evidence that the sincere psychics are at least very often falling victim to classic fallacies, psychological factors, etc. Which immediately puts all their testimony in serious doubt.

I have argued (see earlier posts on "religious experience") exactly the same is true of those who claim to have religious experiences.

In fact, not only do I think it unreasonable for us to believe what psychics tell us (even if they are as impressive as Sally Morgan), I think it's also unreasonable for them to believe what they seem to experience, given the available evidence. Ditto religious believers.

My response to the "training" move

What about "training" and "experts"? Just like ultra-sound scanner operators, can't religious folk be trained to use their God-sensing faculty, so they become much more reliable, trustworthy witnesses?

Here's a problem for the "training" suggestion. In order to acquire a skill, you need to be able to practise, and test yourself against some independent standard of success. To borrow an example from philosopher David Pears (who uses it in a discussion of the private language argument), to become a good marksman, you need to be able to go and check the target to see how well you did. If the target vanishes the minute you pull the trigger, you can't tell how you are doing, and so can never get any better. You'll never acquire any skill.

Those trained to use sonic scanners, etc. can acquire their skills because there is something available against which they can test how they're doing. If they say "It's twins!" and only one baby shows up, then they know they got it wrong.

So now how does the religious person "practise" and acquire the "skill" of using their God-sensing faculty? How do they test how well they are doing? There's nothing independent against which they can check. So they cannot acquire any skill. When it comes to religious experience, the "skill" of the "expert" practitioner is, frankly, a fiction.

To this, you may respond: but the religious can check what they experience against something independent, e.g. the Bible, and the testimony of others.

But now notice:

(i) they are then only justified in trusting their religious experience because it's confirmed "independently", which is what Plantinga, and several contributors to this blog, deny.

(ii) actually, it isn't being independently confirmed, is it? The Bible does not provide independent confirmation of religious experiences (we can argue over this if you like).

(iii) the other so called "experts" are no such thing. Real experts have a demonstrable skill that can be independently checked. When it comes to religious experience, the so-called "expert" witnesses are unable to demonstrate any such skill - not even to themselves. Indeed, for the reasons just discussed, they can't be said to have acquired any skill.

POST SCRIPT 9.52am, 28/3/08

I guess the point I am making here is really a conceptual one. It doesn't make sense to describe someone as "acquiring a skill" if there's no check available to them by which they can measure their progress. The concepts of skill, training, practise and expertise are essentially linked to that of being able to check against something independent.

Interestingly, I think we can make an conceptual distinction here between skills and abilities. An ability you are born with is not a skill, because it is not something you acquire through practise, or can further hone through practise.

I acknowledge the possibility that someone might be born with an ability to perceive God. But that's not a case of acquiring a skill. That person's ability might then improve if they exercise it in a particular way, but, if there's no way for them to tell how well they are doing, depending on how they do it, this wouldn't be "training", nor "an increase in expertise". It would just be luck.

Of course, someone might be under the illusion that they are exercising a skill, practising it, and so on. Wittgenstein somewhere describes someone (perhaps a lunatic) using a pair of compasses very deliberately, and seemingly with great precision. They think they are "measuring", or whatever, and with some skill, but the truth is they are deluded. For there's no standard against which they can be judged to be doing it (whatever "it" is) well or badly.

This does seem to be a correct conceptual point: that, in the absence of such an independent standard, we cannot be described as "practising", "exercising a skill", etc.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mountain biking

This is my Specialized S-Works Epic. And er... yes, that is Lycra.

I sometimes drive to South Wales for the day to ride at Afan Argoed. I do White's Level, then The Wall, then the Penrydd, or whatever it's called. Then drive home. Then it takes me two days to recover.

I am going next Tuesday if it's not raining....

Perhaps it is "the fastest suspension bike in the world", but not with me riding it, unfortunately.

Video of The Wall here. Gets faster and faster...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Events: Romania and Netherlands

Some more events coming up:

I'll be speaking at the new Centre for Inquiry conference in Utrecht, Netherlands, May 3rd.

I'll be following that up with some events in Bucharest, Romania May 5th.

Details of Utrecht here:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Religious experience - Sam Norton's analogy with moral conscience

The rev. Sam has tried defending religious experience by drawing an anology with our moral conscience. It's a popular move, I think. Here it is:

SAM SAID: “Stephen, if we substituted 'conscience' for 'religious experience' would it make any difference to your arguments? This too is something which people claim to experience, and which leads them to do very different things etc, so why should we trust our conscience?”

STEPHEN REPLIES: Interesting analogy.

Well, first off, you shouldn’t be entirely trusting of your conscience; I’m not of mine. If reason etc. otherwise indicates your moral intuitions are in error, then you should reject them. So, for example, common moral intuitions on homosexuality, the role of women, on other species, etc. – are mistaken. But note there's also good reason to suppose that e.g. your religious experience of an all-powerful, all-good God is mistaken (the evidential problem of evil).

Second, and more importantly, is your moral conscience a quasi-perceptual faculty for determining extra-mental, super-natural facts? That’s what your analogy with the sensus divinitatis requires. But, of course, that our moral conscience is such a quasi-perceptual faculty is highly unlikely. Certainly, you haven't given us any reason to suppose it is.

More probably, our moral conscience is something that has evolved to help us (or our genes) survive and reproduce.

The bottom line is – like a great many philosophers, I am, for good reasons, skeptical of the suggestion that my moral conscience is a quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing non-natural facts. But then I’m similarly skeptical about the suggestion that I’m equipped with a sensus divinitatis - quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing super-natural God-facts.

True, I do often trust the deliverances my moral conscience. But I can do that while being very skeptical of the suggestion that it’s a quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing super-natural facts.

But now notice that you CAN'T similarly trust your religious experience that there’s a God, while remaining skeptical of the suggestion that it’s a quasi-perceptual faculty for revealing super-natural facts.

To argue: "Aha, you consider yourself reasonable in trusting the deliverances of your moral conscience. So you must acknowledge that I am reasonable in trusting my religious experiences!" is to overlook this key difference between moral conscience and sensus divinitatis.

So your analogy fails, I think.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Religious experiences - the telescope analogy

Here's another analogy with religious experience.

It's supposed that we (or some of us) are equipped with what Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls a sensus divinitatis - an extra "sense" that allows us to experience God directly.

If someone experiences God by such means, then, it's suggested, they can know God exists. It's also reasonable for them to believe God exists.

But is it? After all, there are so many different religious experiences, experiences which contradict each other in so many ways (about the number of Gods, character of these Gods, and so on). The power of suggestion is also clearly heavily involved in shaping these experiences - as the experiences tend to be culturally highly specific.

Here's my analogy.

Suppose a new kind of telescope is developed to reveal otherwise unobservable and unknowable portions of reality. Scientists know, however, that on at least a majority of occasions, this telescope produces at least very significantly deceptive results. In fact, it may not work at all. You peek through the telescope and seem to observe P. However, when others peek through it, they observe quite different things. Oddly, very often, people tend to see what they expect to see.

Knowing all this, how reasonable is it for you to believe P?

Not very reasonable, I'd suggest (not even if the telescope is, on this particular occasion, functioning reliably).

So why is it reasonable of you to trust your religious experience?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Religious experiences - and alien abduction

Thanks for the very interesting comments on the previous post.

As you are not all persuaded, I thought I would develop the argument a bit by means of a further analogy.

Very many people claim to have been abducted by aliens. In the U.S. it's an astonishing number. Aren't these people justified in taking their experiences at face value? And aren't we justified in supposing, on the basis of their testimony, that at least some of these subjects have indeed met, been probed by, etc. aliens?

I think not. There are obvious reasons to be sceptical.

First, the power of suggestion is clearly often involved in these experiences. For example, very many abductees claim to have been abducted by a flying saucer. Trouble is, the saucer story originates with a pilot back in 1947. Kenneth Arnold was asked by a reporter what he saw and he said the craft were boomerang shaped and moved like saucers skipped across a pond (they bounced along). The reporter said they looked like saucers, and immediately people started reporting saucers, and have been reporting them ever since. Here is excellent evidence that reports of saucers are at least largely down to the power of suggestion. People see something, then interpret it as a saucer, because that's what they expect to see. They even describe the saucers in great detail - the little windows, people looking out, etc.

Second, there's the contradictory nature of the stories. Either we are being visited by very many alien races, or else many of these reports must be mistaken. Sometimes, even witnesses of the same event report it differently. Consider Betty and Barney Hill - one of the most famous abductee cases ever. They described the aliens differently. Betty said they had big noses dark hair and were human looking. Barney said no hair or noses and wrap-around eyes.

Thirdly, there's the cultural and geographical specificity of the stories. For example, the reports of saucers and abductions pretty much stop at the Mexican border. In Mexico, you get other entirely different weird and wacky claims.

Fourth, given what we know about human beings, their tendency to have weird experiences, etc. means the fact that we find such reports gives us little reason to suppose they are true.

Fifth, there's very good empirical evidence against the abductee hypothesis. For a start, other civilizations are going to just too far away for regular travel here to be a possibility (even assuming they have close-to-light-speed space ships).

Sixth, there's not much corroborating evidence. No alien implants removed from beneath the skin, few physical traces of where the craft landed, etc. We just have people's word for what happened.

Now compare religious experiences of the Judeo-Christian God. I'll go through the same points backwards:

6. There's little or no corroborating evidence for religious experience. We just have to take people's word for it.

5. There's very good empirical evidence against the good-God hypothesis - namely the evidential problem of evil (see my The God of Eth, if you are inclined to think the evidence anything less than very powerful indeed).

4. Given what we know about human beings and their tendency to experience weird and wacky things, we should expect such experiences anyway, so the fact people do have them doesn't give us much grounds for supposing there is any such being.

3. Religious experiences are highly geographically and culturally specific - North of the Med, people experience the Virgin Mary, South of the Med, Mohammad, etc.

2. Religious experiences contradict each other. We have experiences which are interpreted to be of one God, of many Gods (the ancient Greeks, Norse, Romans, etc.), that there is no God (many, if not all, Buddhists). Some of these Gods are cruel and vengeful, some demand blood, some are loving and kind, and so on. Take a step back and look at the sweep of human history, and you find a quite extraordinary range of such experiences. Clearly, then, most of them must be substantially deceptive.

1. The power of suggestion - clearly shapes many of these experiences, and largely explains the cultural specificity.

Now, to this, the religious will typically say (and some of you have said):

"Ah but despite the differences between these experiences, there's a core that's the same - namely that there is single, good God. We just experience this being in different ways (like flatlanders!)"

But this is pretty obviously false (and it doesn't become true by being endlessly repeated!) The most we can say is these experiences all purport to reveal that there is "something more". But as to what this "something" is, well, they disagree on pretty much everything (unless, of course, you gerrymander the set of experiences under consideration - e.g. by air-brushing out the Norse, Greek and Roman pantheons, the Mayan divinities, etc.).

There are at least two further, additional problems for those who place their trust in religious experience.

First, the experience is via a mysterious faculty. At least the abductees are relying on their five senses, which we do know exist, and are pretty reliable.

Second, the contradictory nature of abductee experiences can at least be accounted for by saying there are many alien races. Those who believe in the Judeo-Christian God cannot similarly explain the diverse nature of religious experiences by saying that there are many gods.

So now explain to me why I, or you, should take religious experiences significantly more seriously than stories of alien abduction (which I consider a bit of a joke, frankly).

Indeed, seems to me that, just as someone who thinks they have experienced being abducted by aliens should be sceptical about their own experience, so someone who believes they have experienced the Judeo-Christian God should be similarly sceptical, and for much the same reasons.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

THERE IS NO GOD - talk at Oxfringe Festival

On 3rd April, I am giving a talk at The Corner Club | 01865 261 500 | 16 Turl Street, Oxford, OX1 3DH.


Time: 7:30pm
Price: £6.50
BOOKING: Call Joe on 01865 261 507 or email:

More details here. Venue is number 13 on this map.

Friday, March 7, 2008

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.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Thought for the Day

I recently did an alternative "Thought for the Day" for the HSS. You can hear my effort here, along with those from A.C. Grayling, Stewart Lee, Arthur Smith, Nigel Warburton and many others.

They are offered, of course, as an alternative to the T4TDs on BBC Radio 4, from which humanists and non-religious folk are banned.