Intelligent Design

Good Atheists, Bad Atheists, and Nick Matzke

Spread the love

This is in regard to the Pharyngula thread where PZ Myers bashes Ken Miller. I think it’s been made clear by Bill and Denyse what’s a bad atheist. In reading the comments on Myers’ screed a person named “plunge” demonstrates what a good atheist thinks and relates it to science. Plunge asserts he is an outspoken atheist but he sure sounds like an outspoken agnostic to me. I find it a little irritating that atheist and agnostic are commonly conflated because that throws me into the atheist camp when in reality I am simply unsure one way or the other – in a no man’s land between theists and atheists.

Anyhow, Plunge correctly (in my opinion) asserts that science is agnostic. What the scientist should say while wearing his labcoat (vs. his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes) is: God may or may not exist but I know of no way to objectively measure or test God’s existence so as a scientist I cannot say one way or the other. Even PZ Myers in a comment says he respects Plunge’s opinion but doesn’t agree with it. Maybe there’s hope for Myers yet.

Myers:

“Claims that gods do not exist or do not interfere in natural processes, and that we must base our interpretations on an assumption that events occur by the action of natural phenomena, however, have been the essential operational basis of all of science, and that has worked incredibly well.”

Plunge in response:

You’re confusing things here. You are trying to conflate the principles that delimit the scope of science with the idea that those principles are themselves proof of anything. We carefully stake out the territory of science to what we can see and detect and test because it would become pure nonsense if we did not (and DOES become pure nonsense in the hands of religious people who try to introduce god into their equations). But that doesn’t mean that science “makes the claim that god does not exist.” You aren’t going to find that declaration in a science textbook, because it’s neither necessary nor supportable.

I’d like to further comment on the critical difference between objective and subjective in regard to science & religion. I, and presumably Ken Miller and many of you, have subjective evidence of God. We feel a connection with a living God that is at once undeniable and irrational non-rational. This is subjective evidence and I cannot convince an unbiased observer with it. For my part I can’t even convince myself that the feeling weighs more towards one particular organized religion than another. Science is ideally all about objective evidence such that all observers can agree upon it regardless of their subjective experience.

Now to why I mention Nick Matzke. I don’t know if Nick is an atheist, agnostic, or theist but he at least recognizes PZ Myers as a bad atheist and it’s just too irresistible not to point out the problems in NDE paradise (friction amongst its adherents). I will just quote Nick with no further explanation:

PZ, you’re a great guy, but I think the only thing that would make you happy is if everyone submitted to your personal metaphysical beliefs. Ken Miller is correct that theists should argue against atheism, not mistarget science or evolution. You just don’t seem to get the distinction between science and metaphysics.

PZ, I respect you greatly for your contributions as a scientist, evolution educator, and effective foe of creationism. But if you’re going to be bashing Ken, would it not be worth comparing you two in these categories? Isn’t there a good chance he would come out ahead in all three?

Posted by: Nick (Matzke) | September 9, 2006 06:22 PM

67 Replies to “Good Atheists, Bad Atheists, and Nick Matzke

  1. 1
    tinabrewer says:

    DaveScot: the methods of science have become incredibly refined over the past centuries because humans value the scientific enterprise to the extent that massive energy and resources are poured into this activity. It cannot help but get better and more sophisticated with such emphasis. Unfortunately, the private inner life of the soul (what you call subjective experience, and which is NOT to be confused with one or the other religion) is not considered a worthy place to expend energy. It brings few material returns, and its very subjectivity makes it elusive and quite personal. If humans, as a species, had cultivated the inner life at anywhere near half the amount as we have cultivated the outer/material life, I wager that what are now merely faint subjective experiences would eventually become so powerful and so common within our species that they would gain the force of a generally accepted truth. The spiritual life and the scientific life have this much in common, that they are attempts to arrive at truth. Unfortunately, the progressive weakening of the spiritual capacity has led to the false notion that the arena of spirituality is IRrational. By what criteria do you call these experiences irrational?

  2. 2
    bFast says:

    DaveScot, I believe that the agnostic position that you describe of yourself is a perfectly valid, albiet neglected, position. I don’t understand why uncertainty is so disrespected.

    I have been taught on a different forum, however, that we must separate athiests into two separate camps. There is the “I work on the assumption that there is no god, and will continue in this view until I see some good reason otherwise” athiests, and then there are the evangelical Athiests. These guys view is, “anyone who isn’t an athiest is, by definition, wrong” camp. It is the latter camp that I find to be offensive. Further, it is the latter camp that has claimed some ownership of science. I oppose them.

  3. 3
    Rude says:

    Dave Scott, you’re what I’d call a “good agnostic”–you admit you don’t know but do not condemn others who want to know and think that it just might be possible.

  4. 4
    BarryA says:

    DaveScot writes: “I, and presumably Ken Miller and many of you, have subjective evidence of God. We feel a connection with a living God that is at once undeniable and irrational. This is subjective evidence and I cannot convince an unbiased observer with it.”

    The phenomenon you described is so universal in human experience that it has a name. Philosophers call it the “numinous,” that feeling every person has that there is something not quite canny about the world. The best explication of the phenomenon I have seen is in C. S. Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain.”

    Your statement contains a non sequitur. The numinous is a real phenomenon. It is not subjective, but, as I said, universal in human experience. If an observer does not accept it as evidence for the existence of God (not conclusive evidence, to be sure, but at least evidence that points toward that conclusion), almost by definition he is not unbiased.

    Note: Your particular experience of the numinous might be different from everyone else’s and thus your experience of it is subjective. However, the existence of the numinous generally is an objective fact.

  5. 5
    great_ape says:

    tinabrewer: “If humans, as a species, had cultivated the inner life at anywhere near half the amount as we have cultivated the outer/material life, I wager that what are now merely faint subjective experiences would eventually become so powerful and so common within our species that they would gain the force of a generally accepted truth.”

    I think there were humans, particularly in Asia (e.g. Tibet) as well as several Catholic traditions that spent a great deal of time and energy cultivating the spiritual side of existence. We might quibble that they systematically got it wrong somehow, but that’s just the point. With the sort of materialism society/science ultimately focused much more energy on, there was steady movement towards a consensus by practitioners on multiple fronts. Yet within the subjective realm, despite huge expenditures of time and energy, there was only more disagreement. I think this is unfortunate truth concerning the pursuit of the spiritual dimension. Nevertheless, I ultimately believe, however irrationally, that there is such a dimension and a truth out there somewhere.

  6. 6
    mike1962 says:

    Why does anyone care what this P.Z. Myers character says? He’s obviously less than a sophomoric philosopher. Does every barking dog deserve a rebuttal?

  7. 7
    mike1962 says:

    Tinabrewer: “By what criteria do you call these experiences irrational?”

    It’s rather like calling the experience of “blue” irrational. “Science” cannot explain blue. Can’t even define it without being circular.

    Blue simply is.

    The ineffable simply is too.

    Wierd stuff.

  8. 8
    tribune7 says:

    “Claims that gods do not exist or do not interfere in natural processes, and that we must base our interpretations on an assumption that events occur by the action of natural phenomena, however, have been the essential operational basis of all of science,

    I don’t think he understands that logically science is limited by truth. Anyway, here’s the Catholic position on the matter, at least as of 1917.

  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11
    P. Phillips says:

    BarryA, I want to provide you with a recent article in The Times how Darwin explains religous experience, or the sense of the numinous. I posted it previously on another thread. Of course, personally, I disagree, but you’ll see that neo-Darwinism explains *everything*!

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2342599.html

    Excerpt:

    HUMANS have evolved over tens of thousands of years to be susceptible to supernatural beliefs, a psychologist has claimed.

    Religion and other forms of magical thinking continue to thrive — despite the lack of evidence and advance of science — because people are naturally biased to accept a role for the irrational, said Bruce Hood, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol.

    # # # #

    Also, I don’t know if anyone has seen this article.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,173-2237307,00.html

    A statement signed by national science academies from 67 countries, including Britain, claims that children at some faith-based schools are not being taught evolution.

    Some schools hold that evolution is merely a theory, while the Bible is the truth.

    The statement, which was signed by the Royal Society,said: “We urge decision-makers, teachers, and parents to educate all children about the methods and discoveries of science and foster an understanding of the science of nature. Knowledge of the natural world in which they live empowers people to meet human needs and protect the planet.

    “Within science courses taught in certain public systems of education, scientific evidence, data, and testable theories about the origins and evolution of life on Earth are being concealed, denied or confused with theories not testable by science.”

    # # # # #

    Letters included some intelligent replies:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,59-2243184.html

    Sir, Regarding the insistence of scientists that evidence-based teaching be the main thrust of education on how current life-forms came to be, let us not forget that certain assumptions are made which are beyond our ability to prove.

    If we assume the Big Bang theory and evolution are correct (there is evidence to support them though they are currently only scientific best guess), there are still many questions. Can we be confident nothing has affected the rate of expansion of the universe or the change of this rate? Is there evidence to show nothing affects the size of remains over millions of years that we might question the size of dinosaurs? What makes a species come up with strategies to solve the problems of its environment so quickly? There is surely enough uncertainty in questions such as these (look at how estimates vary on the age of the universe) to suggest we ought to allow both science and religion to have their say. It is impossible to deduce with certainty even the major happenings in time unexperienced by man, merely by testing at one point in time.

    ROBERT DAVIS
    Edgware, Middx

  12. 12
    DaveScot says:

    Great_Ape

    I’ve grown weary of seeing and approving of your comments in the moderation queue. Therefore I took your name off the list. Your comments will appear immediately. Don’t make me regret it. I’ve still got a leery eye on you, buster. 😉

  13. 13
    DaveScot says:

    tina

    I replaced irrational with non-rational. I didn’t mean irrational crazy I meant irrational unexplainable.

  14. 14
    bFast says:

    I will give you that there is the “non-rational” internal feelings we have. I experience such feelings, but I have never found them to be support enough for faith. Just who I am, I guess.

    However, we still have “experience”. Experience is more external that “feelings”. I have as significant bank of external experiences, my friends have a significant bank of external experiences. These experiences spell GOD.

    An event happens once, and poof it is gone. It becomes really hard to put it into a test-tube. God doesn’t seem to respond to majic words. “Thus saith the Lord” just doesn’t work like abricadabra. I think that God actively avoids being test-tubed. I think that it is his active avoidance of being test-tubed that makes him undetectable by science. He is not, however, undetectable in relationship.

  15. 15
    Lutepisc says:

    BarryA writes: “The phenomenon you described is so universal in human experience that it has a name. Philosophers call it the ‘numinous,’ that feeling every person has that there is something not quite canny about the world.”

    Yep, I believe the word “numinous” was coined by Rudolph Otto, whose classic book “The Idea of the Holy” was published in 1917. I just checked Amazon.com and see that it ranks 11,918 all these decades later. Just slightly ahead of “Darwin’s Black Box.”

  16. 16
    kathy says:

    Tina: I always look forward to your comments–I usually come from a different perspective, but I appreciate the thought and passion you bring to the discussion.

  17. 17
    BarryA says:

    Mike1962 writes: “It’s rather like calling the experience of “blue” irrational. “Science” cannot explain blue. Can’t even define it without being circular.”

    Not so fast Mike. Of course we can define “blue.” One dictionary defines it as follows:

    “The hue of that portion of the visible spectrum lying between green and indigo, evoked in the human observer by radiant energy with wavelengths of approximately 420 to 490 nanometers.”

    What you mean (and I quite agree) is that science cannot define, of even describe, the “experience” of blue, i.e., the blueness of blue. Philosophers call this a “qualia.” Qualias are very very real. Yet they are completely inexplicable in material terms. Ed Oakes has my favorite take on this:

    “I once attended a lecture by a philosopher who, in the midst of a tirade against the Christian right, interrupted himself and admitted that his atheism also had a problem: “I hate to admit it,” he conceded, “but I am a qualia freak.” Among philosophers working on the mind/body problem, the word “qualia” stands for all those features of consciousness that give awareness its specific identity as a particular kind of experience: the redness of red, the sadness of depression, the piquancy of papaya juice, the irksomeness of traffic jams, the crankiness that comes from insomnia, the hurt feelings arising from playground taunts, and so forth.”

  18. 18
    tinabrewer says:

    kathy: thank you. I have enjoyed reading some of the entries on your blog. I am touched by the strength of your inner faithfulness, which is quite clear from your writing. Women of strong faith are the best hope for mankind, from my perspective.

  19. 19
    Alan Fox says:

    From Dave quoting Matske:

    You just don’t seem to get the distinction between science and metaphysics.

    Whilst I agree with Nick and think PZ does a much better job of explaining cutting-edge embryology than debating theists, the criticism applies a little wider.

    “One thing is certain – that is, that nothing is certain.”
    -Pliny the Elder

  20. 20
    DaveScot says:

    No need to mince words, Alan. We know you have the same problem as PZ.

  21. 21
    bdelloid says:

    DS:

    I think you are confusing believing something vs. being 100 % convinced.

    I don’t believe there is a god – therefore I am an atheist. I can’t prove it and I’m not convinced, but I am not agnostic because if you held a gun to my head and said:

    “Hey – do you believe or not believe there is a god ?”

    I would have to say I believe there is none. This doesn’t make me agnostic, but it certainly doesn’t put me in the camp of strong atheism.

  22. 22
    Mats says:

    Why does anyone care what this P.Z. Myers character says? He’s obviously less than a sophomoric philosopher. Does every barking dog deserve a rebuttal?

    Well, when the darwinian priesthood keeps saying that evolution is God neutral, while other darwinists say that “science” (evolution) refutes any spiritual realm, we have to consider such.

    Secondly, wasn’t Myers’ site considered one of the hottest science blogs? What’s wrong in calling to action for his remarks,which seem to contradict what other darwinists preach world wide?

  23. 23
    Alan Fox says:

    No need to mince words, Alan. We know you have the same problem as PZ.

    That’s not true, Dave. I don’t think religion vs. atheism is a scientific issue.

  24. 24
    Karl Pfluger says:

    BarryA wrote:
    “The numinous is a real phenomenon. It is not subjective, but, as I said, universal in human experience.”

    Barry,
    The fact that an experience is universal does not mean that its referent is real. Take optical illusions, for example. They are universal (at least among sighted people), but they do not reflect reality.

  25. 25
    mike1962 says:

    BarryA: “What you mean (and I quite agree) is that science cannot define, of even describe, the “experience” of blue, i.e., the blueness of blue.”

    Right.

    Consciousness studies are one area of science that is about as bankrupt as can be as far as explaining what consciousness is. Conscious states are obviously associated with brain states as MRIs show. (No surprise there.) But the nature of consciousness, the so-called “hard problem”, is an utter mystery.

    We all have it (I assume.) It’s right there staring us all “in the face”, telling us there is something different than Nature. Something *radically* different. And while we, our conscious selves, are touching Nature (interfaced via the brain and affected by it), we are not Nature. That there is indeed “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

  26. 26
    mike1962 says:

    BarryA: “Not so fast Mike. Of course we can define “blue.” One dictionary defines it as follows: ‘The hue of that portion of the visible spectrum lying between green and indigo, evoked in the human observer by radiant energy with wavelengths of approximately 420 to 490 nanometers.’ What you mean (and I quite agree) is that science cannot define, of even describe, the “experience” of blue, i.e., the blueness of blue.”

    Right. I think that was obvious given the full statement of what I said:

    mike1962: “It’s rather like calling the EXPERIENCE of “blue” irrational. “Science” cannot explain blue. Can’t even define it without being circular.”

    I was explicitly talking about the experience. But I liked what you posted anyway.

  27. 27
    Scott says:

    It was a combination of numinous and historical evidence which led this former agnostic to life-transforming faith. Though I tried to deny it, in the end I could only conclude that the \”alternative\” explanations for what I was investigating just didn\’t fly. And I surrendered.

    I consider mine to be a faith based on thoroughly investigated objective data, rather than some kind of blind leap into the dark.

  28. 28
    BarryA says:

    mike1962, you’re right of course. When I looked back at what you posted I realized we were talking about the same thing.

  29. 29
    BarryA says:

    Karl Pfluger writes: “The fact that an experience is universal does not mean that its referent is real. Take optical illusions, for example. They are universal (at least among sighted people), but they do not reflect reality.”

    1. That is why the existence of the numinous is only some evidence of the existence of God, but not conclusive.

    2. When we investigate an optical illusion we see that it was just that, an illusion. When we consider the numinous it very often leads us to a trail of investigation at the end of which we conclude that its referent is real indeed. I thank Scott for sharing his example of someone who has walked this trail.

  30. 30
    Lutepisc says:

    If the experience of the numinous has no referent, how does one explain the experience? Given the experience of the numinous, which is the more parsimonious explanation: that the experience has a referent, or that it does not?

  31. 31
    DaveScot says:

    BarryA

    How does one distinguish between internal and external referents in the numinous? I can’t. As far as I know the numinous is entirely contained by and caused from within – a phenomenon generated by my own brain with no external agency involved.

  32. 32
    tinabrewer says:

    DaveScot: by definition the numinous or supernatural would be something which would touch you from without, setting off a receptive reaction within your brain. In other words, if there is a supernatural existence of any kind, it would still have to reach you via the sense organ which mediates your consciousness at this point in time. So although you experience this as ‘subjective’ necessarily, it seems a stretch to call this internal perceptive capacity “a phenomenon generated by my own brain”. All of your senses take in information from an objective reality, and you process this in a manner which you readily call ‘perception’. Doesn’t it rather make sense that a non-material reality would make itself felt through another, subtler form of perception?

    Also, I think the consciousness question is central here. ALthough we know that electrochemical activity in the brain is correlated with thought, there is absolutely NO explanation in science for how something as neutral as the substance of the brain and electrical charge plus chemistry translates into something like “numinous” Its so mysterious that is blows the mind, this connection. WHat it resembles most closely, in my view, is the activity of a radio, THe radio is a receptive/transformative device, and by no means the origin of the music it plays.

  33. 33
    BarryA says:

    DaveScot writes: “How does one distinguish between internal and external referents in the numinous? I can’t. As far as I know the numinous is entirely contained by and caused from within – a phenomenon generated by my own brain with no external agency involved.”

    There are two competing hypotheses to explain the numinous. You and Karl Pfluger put forward the “admittedly universal but nevertheless an illusion” hypothesis. Scott and I suggest the “universal because it points to something real” hypothesis.

    Certainly, your and Karl’s hypothesis cannot be dismissed in principle. It may well be that the numinous is universal because it is part of our hardwiring. It may be an evolutionary adaptation unique to our species; though it is difficult to discern what adaptive purpose it serves.

    The other hypothesis is that the numinous is part of God’s “general” revelation. Clearly it is consistent with his “specific” revelation. Consider Ecclesiastes 3:11 “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men . . .”

    Can we decided conclusively which hypothesis is correct. I submit to you that we will never know for certain until we go to the “undiscovered country.”

    God is the God who is revealed. He is also the God who is hidden. He reveals enough of Himself so that people like me and Scot can accept him on faith, not a blind unreasoning faith, but a reasonable faith based on the evidence – but faith nevertheless. This is how God demands that we approach him. How do I know? Because He says so. Hebrews 11:6 says: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

    God does not bash us over the head. He insists that when we come to Him — if we come to Him — we do so on His terms, and those terms include a measure of reasoned faith. I think He has very good reasons for this, and we can explore those further if you like. But at the end of the day, who are we, the created, to say to the Creator, we will not come to you on your terms but only on ours?

  34. 34
    mike1962 says:

    “How does one distinguish between internal and external referents in the numinous? I can’t. As far as I know the numinous is entirely contained by and caused from within – a phenomenon generated by my own brain with no external agency involved.”

    All of your conscious experiences are triggered by your brain, not just “internal” ones. External sense data is highly processed and presented to consciousness as experience triggers. I like to say “the blueness is you-ness.” You *are* the experience of blue. The brain merely triggers the experience after doing lots of processing to the sense/memory data. And that trigger can be due to processes simply in the brain itself, or because of (highly processed) external stimuli. What we experience is very cartoon-like compared to what is really “out there.” You are not aware of every “pixel” in your retina, are you? Your brain processes the single optic nerve inputs into a very particular kinds of experience triggers.

    At any rate, the point is not whether the brain generates a numinous experience or whether some other entity does it. The point is that you have numinous experiences *at all* and are conscious at all. Start thinking of your consciousness (it’s “experience states”) as the real you and your brain as an interface and tool of thought within spacetime and see what you come up with.

  35. 35
    DaveScot says:

    Start thinking of your consciousness (it’s “experience states”) as the real you and your brain as an interface and tool of thought within spacetime and see what you come up with.

    I come up with exactly the same thing. What now?

  36. 36
    DaveScot says:

    BarryA

    The numinous for me disconfirms a lot of Christian scripture. I imagine it’s that way for many others too. Given that it can providing different and contradictory answers to different people I still don’t see how it can be viewed as objective. If we all feel it but we don’t all interpret its meaning the same way it seems very subjective. I’ve felt the profane numinous on just a few occasions. That’s the one where it leaves you in a heaping puddle of tears for you and your species being such horrible wretches under the gaze of our perfect creator. Most of the time though it is a bright, bubbly, and welcome feeling of confirmation when throughts or actions are on the right track. Again, I’m not sure if these are just some odd response to internally generated dialogue or actual communion with something outside myself.

  37. 37
    BarryA says:

    DaveScot, you seem to be confusing your and other’s perception of and reaction to the numinous (subjective) with the fact of the numinous itself (objective). How am I wrong?

  38. 38
    Carlos says:

    The fact, if it is fact, that the numinous is a universal feature of experience does not, by itself, make the numinous objective.

    Objectivity, to be a bit fast and loose, is how things are when there’s no one looking at them. It is “the view from nowhere,” as Thom Nagel puts it — that is, the view from nowhere in particular. The objective picture of the world is the world as it would be if there were no minds at all. By contrast, the numinous, even on the interpretation you want to present, is a feature of mindedness as such. It can be universal without being non-subjective.

    Or, to put it another way, the objective/subjective distinction and the universal/particular distinction do not coincide. So there can be particular interpretations of a universal feature of experience without putting that experience on the objective side of things.

  39. 39
    mike1962 says:

    DaveScot: “How does one distinguish between internal and external referents in the numinous? I can’t. As far as I know the numinous is entirely contained by and caused from within – a phenomenon generated by my own brain with no external agency involved.”

    mike1962: “Start thinking of your consciousness (it’s “experience states”) as the real you and your brain as an interface and tool of thought within spacetime and see what you come up with.”

    DaveScot: “I come up with exactly the same thing. What now?”

    I think there’s a disjoint here. My suggestion at the end was not a direct response to your initial question. To deal with your question a bit more directly, whether any numinous experience is caused from within or from without is the wrong question to ask, at least initially, I think. If any god or spirit or ET or whatever outside force was tinkering with you, I don’t think you could distinguish it from a purely brain generated experience. This is true with any experience. (If some outside force was responsible for initiating such an experience or any experience, the brain would certainly be involved, especially if any memory of the experience was to be retained, given that our conscious states are entirely controlled and directed by the brain. Which is to say, if God or a lesser being messes with our minds, he messes with our brains, not our consciousness directly.)

    What is more fundamentally interesting to me is conscious experience itself and how it relates to the brain. With regards to numinous experience (the feeling of some, well, godlike or demonlike awesome powerful presence), what is striking to me is not whether or not the brain could produce such an experience in us (I believe it can), but the fact that we can consciously experience something like this *at all*.

    But like that other fellow, quoted above, I’m a qualia maniac. Perhaps it’s experiences like these, and seriously contemplating consciousness itself, that make the difference between those with a materialist bent and those with a serious openness to Something Other to whatever extent. I’m not a religious person myself, but I’ve had numionous experiences. And I’ve thought a lot about consciousness. Maybe that’s why I’m open to Something Other.

  40. 40
    Lutepisc says:

    Dave, you wrote: “I’ve felt the profane numinous on just a few occasions. That’s the one where it leaves you in a heaping puddle of tears for you and your species being such horrible wretches under the gaze of our perfect creator. Most of the time though it is a bright, bubbly, and welcome feeling of confirmation when throughts or actions are on the right track. Again, I’m not sure if these are just some odd response to internally generated dialogue or actual communion with something outside myself.”

    Yes, you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head. Rudolph Otto described the numinous as a “mysterium tremendum et fascinosum”…a mystery which both attracts and repels; an “awe-filled and fascinating mystery.” As he describes it, it is experienced “coram Deo,” or “before the face of God.” That is, it is experienced by people who are experiencing themselves as being “in the presence of the holy” which is not the self. It is “wholly other” than the self.

    So my question is: which is the more parsimonious explanation…that there is actually a “wholly other” which evokes the experience, or rather some other explanation for the experience?

    This is not unlike the question asked in Newburg and D’Aquili’s book. As you probably know, they noted certain brain areas lit up in scans when Tibetan monks meditated and Franciscan sisters prayed. So, again, if the brain has these receptive areas (some were in the sensory cortex), is it more parsimonious to infer that something is being sensed/received/contacted during these experiences? Or not?

  41. 41
    jerry says:

    For all you believers in God out there is a neat video with beautiful photography and fluff psychology about man and God. Someone sent me the link this morning. Since part of this discussion is about the existence of God and experience, I always thought how beautiful the world can be as a subjective experience of God that often makes me thank God for my existence. Few of us have to go far to find something that qualifies. I am not offering this as proof of God but most of us seem to agree what is beautiful. There are few who visit Yosemite Valley who do no marvel at its beauty and Delfi was thought to be one of the most beautiful places in the World by the Greeks, where earth and heaven meet and the gods lived.

    If anyone is interested, the link is http://www.theinterviewwithgod.com/viewmovie.html and some of you may have already seen it. They are also selling stuff there and they got me today as I bought their screensavers and as I said it contains a lot of fluff psychology. If you are not religious enjoy the photography.

  42. 42
    Jehu says:

    “Or, to put it another way, the objective/subjective distinction and the universal/particular distinction do not coincide. So there can be particular interpretations of a universal feature of experience without putting that experience on the objective side of things.”

    Eh?

  43. 43
    mike1962 says:

    DaveScot: “Given that it can providing different and contradictory answers to different people I still don’t see how it can be viewed as objective. If we all feel it but we don’t all interpret its meaning the same way it seems very subjective.”

    The feeling of the numinous is like the experience of blue. (I know I harp on that a lot.) The experience is real, but the original trigger is not necessarily known (is this a dream? Am I awake and sensing the outside?). People who have numinous experiences often come away with meaning that contradicts the meaning of other people’s experiences. But the issue of what an experience means is a different question. If I see blue and you see blue, we may come away with different meaning given the psychological baggage present in our brains (it evokes happy beach times for me, and for you it makes you feel like you are drowning because of some bad experience as a child), but the simple primary experience of blue is still the experience of blue. And whether the experience was initially caused by an outside sense on the optic nerves, or whether the brain generated it without an external sense as when dreaming, the conscious experience is the same. They are not different blues. They are the same blues. The commonality is the conscious experience, which is the same. And it is ‘real’ in both instances.

    The numinous is a state of consciousness. Who knows what initiates any given experience, whether it be an outside sense/force or simply internal. It’s the fact that we experience that numinious AT ALL is what I’m trying to press home here. Why do you suppose humans can experience it? What’s it “for”?

    DaveScot: “Again, I’m not sure if these are just some odd response to internally generated dialogue or actual communion with something outside myself.”

    There’s probably no way of knowing it’s an outside force, unless it is occuring simultaneously among several people, and they receive previously unknown information that is common to them and yet obviously not generated from them. This is how religions get started.

    Moreover, there may be contrary forces at work behind the scenes, with the ability to initiate numinous experiences. This is what all the religions seem to teach. And most of them seem to teach that while such experiences can open one’s mind to the “other”, depending on such experiences alone can lead to trouble.

  44. 44
    DaveScot says:

    Lutepisc is it more parsimonious to infer that something is being sensed/received/contacted during these experiences? Or not?

    If I felt confident about an answer to that I would have given it already. The question I already knew.

    The bottom line is that the experience doesn’t lead me to believe that there is a single path to redemption nor is forgiveness just there for the asking. It leads me to believe that anyone who wants to know the difference between right and wrong just has to ask and the numinous responds. We will be judged first by whether we care enough to ask what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, and then by the choices we make once we are enlightened by the numinous. Doesn’t sound very Christian, does it? It probably aligns with some religion that I’m unaware of. But who am I to say all you others got the wrong message? Maybe I’m getting the wrong message or maybe we’re all deluded and there is no message. Or maybe an omnipotent creator can manifest his will in different ways to different people and while it may look contradictory in our limited knowledge it all makes perfect sense if you’re ominiscient.

  45. 45
    mike1962 says:

    DaveScot: “I’ve felt the profane numinous on just a few occasions. That’s the one where it leaves you in a heaping puddle of tears for you and your species being such horrible wretches under the gaze of our perfect creator. Most of the time though it is a bright, bubbly, and welcome feeling of confirmation when throughts or actions are on the right track.”

    I’ve experience what you seem to be describing here and this doesn’t seem to be the same thing as what I have in mind when I refer to the numinous. With the numinous as I understand it, there is powerful experience of Someone There and it’s bigger than life. It’s more profound than when I had my first child, or witness the World Trade towers crash to the ground. (And that was something to see.) There may be information present, or other emotions, but not necessarily. The numinous is very, very odd. At least to me.

  46. 46
    Lutepisc says:

    Lutepisc: is it more parsimonious to infer that something is being sensed/received/contacted during these experiences? Or not?

    Dave: If I felt confident about an answer to that I would have given it already. The question I already knew.

    Sorry. I didn’t mean to be so obtuse. Explanation A: the brain has these sensory areas because there’s something to be sensed. Pretty parsimonious, as far as I can tell.

    What is Explanation B, and how does it top Explanation B for parsimony?

  47. 47
    Lutepisc says:

    Scuse me…that should be “and how does it top Explanation A for parsimony?”

  48. 48
    BarryA says:

    Mike1962 writes “They are not different blues. They are the same blues. The commonality is the conscious experience, which is the same. And it is ‘real’ in both instances.”

    That is exactly right. And one might make explicit what was implicit in Mike’s statement: The numinous that I experience is the same as the numinous that you experience, and it is real in both instances.

    Carlos writes: “The fact . . . that the numinous is a universal feature of experience does not, by itself, make the numinous objective.”

    This statement is internally inconsistent if by “fact” one means a true ontological statement about the existence of some thing, in this case the universal experience of the numinous. I am saying that the universal experience of the numinous is an objective fact. Whether my truth claim is in fact true is another question. But if one assumes arguendo that it is true, as your statement appears to do, then you appear to be saying the fact is not a fact. And if Nagal’s epistemology cannot account for this fact, so much the worse for Nagal’s epistemology.

  49. 49
    Lutepisc says:

    Oh, Gawd. I’m working on a project here on this end, and just checking into the blog intermittently. So I probably shouldn’t be trying to post anything…let alone these periodic brief snippets.

    Please bear with me as I try again. Here’s a very crude explanation. The brain has both motor and sensory cortex. The motor cortex organizes and produces outputs, while the sensory cortex registers and interprets inputs…largely visual, auditory, and tactile inputs, but others too, of course. So when the sensory cortex lights up, something is being sensed. What does it mean, then, when sensory cortex (in addition to motor cortex) lights up while Franciscan nuns are at prayer or Tibetan monks are meditating?

    Well…your inference is as good as mine…but mine is that it means sensory inputs are being received. “Something is there” to be sensed, and that’s why we have such cortical areas. Visual cortex lights up when we see something, and auditory cortex when we hear something. I’m proposing that as “explanation A,” anyway.

    Frankly, I don’t know what explanation B would be…let alone how it would be more parsimonious than explanation A. But I’m open to proposals, if anyone has one.

    Okay…shutting up now…

  50. 50
    DonaldM says:

    I’d like to further comment on the critical difference between objective and subjective in regard to science & religion. I, and presumably Ken Miller and many of you, have subjective evidence of God. We feel a connection with a living God that is at once undeniable and irrational non-rational. This is subjective evidence and I cannot convince an unbiased observer with it. For my part I can’t even convince myself that the feeling weighs more towards one particular organized religion than another. Science is ideally all about objective evidence such that all observers can agree upon it regardless of their subjective experience.

    The fact that one has subjective evidence for God doesn’t imply that there is not also objective evidence for God. Many, myself included, think that there is. Further, it does not follow from the mere fact that something is subjective that it also irrational (or non-rational).

    I would also argue that science is far from being all about objective evidence. The problem here lies with the term ‘evidence’. I think what you mean to say is that sciences deals with empirical data, which is not the same thing as “objective evidence”. Why? Because in order for some empirical observation to be considered evidence for something, one has to have reasons to attach evidentiary value to the observation or data. THose reasons are not necessarily firmly rooted in the empirical and can definitely be influenced by several subjective beliefs that one holds to be true. Sorting all that out can itself be quite an excercise! Thus when a staunch atheist, say, makes the statement “there is no evidence for the existence of GOd”, is s/he making an objective statement about empirical data, or an interpretation of empirical data influenced by a subjective set of beliefs? I would argue it the latter and not the former. Is this necessarily irrational or non-rational? No, I don’t think so, because it is how we humans interpret the world around us.

    There has to be something that connects empirical data (the objective part) to theory or hypothesis, and that something doesn’t sit in isolation in some compeltely objective plane uninfluenced by other subjective factors.

  51. 51
    BarryA says:

    DonaldM, just so. As I quoted on a recent post, even our agnostic friends admit the same thing:

    “But our ways of learning about the world are strongly influenced by the social preconceptions and biased modes of thinking that each scientist must apply to any problem. The stereotype of a fully rational and objective ‘scientific method,’ with individual scientists as logical (and interchangeable) robots, is self-serving mythology.” Stephen Jay Gould, “In the Mind of the Beholder,” Natural History 103 (February 1994): 14, 14-23.

  52. 52
    Carlos says:

    Carlos writes: “The fact . . . that the numinous is a universal feature of experience does not, by itself, make the numinous objective.”

    This statement is internally inconsistent if by “fact” one means a true ontological statement about the existence of some thing, in this case the universal experience of the numinous. I am saying that the universal experience of the numinous is an objective fact. Whether my truth claim is in fact true is another question. But if one assumes that it is true, as your statement appears to do, then you appear to be saying the fact is not a fact. And if Nagel’s epistemology cannot account for this fact, so much the worse for Nagel’s epistemology.

    The universal experience of the numinous is a fact about minds. It doesn’t tell us what there would be, what would exist, if there no minds. If there were no minds, trees and quarks and quasars would still exist. But if there were no minds, there would be no experiences. C’mon, Barry, I know you’re with me this far. We’re not going to have to work through Berkeleyian idealism again, are we?

    Interestingly, Nagel’s epistemology does allow for phenomenological facts. These are facts about minds, or facts about consciousness. They are not facts about sets of objects. (Nagel thinks physicalism is woefully misguided. Good for him, I say.)

    Now, if you want to introduce a different set of terms, on which all phenomenological facts — that is, facts about experiences — count as objective, I’ll accept it — if we can work out a shared vocabulary. For the time being, I want to hold onto “objective” as “what there would be if there were no experiencing minds at all” — in which case quarks and quasars make the cut, but the universal experience of the numinous doesn’t.

    Note: this doesn’t mean that I’m committed to physicalism or to materialism, for two reasons.

    1) Subjective things have as much of a right to ontological priority as objective things. There are experiencing beings, beings with minds, and no version of reductionist or eliminative materialism has yet been made to work.

    2) Even if the objective consists of “what there is in the absence of all minds,” it doesn’t follow that only physical or material things could count. Mathematical structures, for example, could also count as objective in this sense. Many mathematicians and logicians talk about discovering — not inventing — theorems, and who am I to say that they’re wrong?

  53. 53
    mike1962 says:

    Carlos: “Even if the objective consists of “what there is in the absence of all minds,” it doesn’t follow that only physical or material things could count. Mathematical structures, for example, could also count as objective in this sense. Many mathematicians and logicians talk about discovering — not inventing — theorems, and who am I to say that they’re wrong?”

    Roger Penrose agrees with you. He seems to be rather committed to the platonic reality of mathematical truth and makes his interesting case in Emperor’s New Mind and Shadow’s of the Mind.

  54. 54
    BarryA says:

    Carlos:

    Once again, I appeal to Wittgenstein. “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

    Are you asking me if I agree with you that there would be no universal experience of the mind if minds did not exist? If so, I respond that the question is literally meaningless.

    If you want to define your way out of the objective reality of the universal experience of the numinous, be my guest. It’s a free country. Please don’t expect me or anyone else who gives the word “objective” its commonly accepted meaning to agree with you.

    Legend has it that when Galileo was forced to confess that the earth stands still he muttered under his breath, “nevertheless, it moves.”

    Similarly, it matters not what words you and I choose to hang on the universal experience of the numinous. Out there in objective reality there exists a thing called “the universal experience of the numinous.”

  55. 55
    ofro says:

    #40 Lutepisc: ”This is not unlike the question asked in Newburg and D’Aquili’s book. As you probably know, they noted certain brain areas lit up in scans when Tibetan monks meditated and Franciscan sisters prayed. So, again, if the brain has these receptive areas (some were in the sensory cortex), is it more parsimonious to infer that something is being sensed/received/contacted during these experiences? Or not?”

    I am not sure if the conclusion is justified that the observed brain activity is due to external input. Several areas of the cortex are involved; during deep meditation the parietal lobe, which deals with sensation and perception and is concerned with integrating sensory input, quiets down. In contrast, certain higher centers light up; for example, the middle temporal lobe appears to be the most active during religious emotions. If I understand Newberg and colleagues correctly, they are not sure whether the brain areas lighted up because of external input of through internal generation of thoughts.

  56. 56
    John A. Davison says:

    In case anyone might care which is very doubtful, I am a very devout Creationist with a capital C. How any thinking person could be otherwise escapes me. I also don’t see the difference between an agnostic, a term coined by Thomas Henry Huxley, himself an atheist as near as I can determine and an atheist, because if you don’t know you sure don’t believe. Well I KNOW that was at least one Creator and perhaps more than one so I can’t possibly be either an agnostic who doesn’t know or an atheist who is incapable of knowing anything about the world in which he lives so long as he thinks that there was never a God, Do you follow me? Probably not.

    “A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable.”
    John A. Davison

  57. 57
    DaveScot says:

    Atheists are sure there is no God.
    Agnostics are not sure if there is or isn’t.
    Theists are sure there is a God.

    Straight out of the Princeton University Wordnet dictionary.

  58. 58
    Lutepisc says:

    Yep, I believe you’re right, ofro.

  59. 59
    Lutepisc says:

    …although if you look at the images displayed on p. 4, the whole right side, including the sensory cortex, appears to light up during the meditation/prayer condition. What do you think?

  60. 60
    StephenA says:

    “The bottom line is that the experience doesn’t lead me to believe that there is a single path to redemption nor is forgiveness just there for the asking. It leads me to believe that anyone who wants to know the difference between right and wrong just has to ask and the numinous responds. We will be judged first by whether we care enough to ask what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, and then by the choices we make once we are enlightened by the numinous. Doesn’t sound very Christian, does it? It probably aligns with some religion that I’m unaware of.”

    I beg your pardon? This is very christian. Granted, it is not the whole of Christianity, but it is an essential part of it. Namely, that there is good and evil (sin), that people are capable of knowing the difference and choosing between them, and that people do not always choose good.

    You mention “We will be judged first by whether we care enough to ask what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, and then by the choices we make once we are enlightened by the numinous.” I wonder, who do you expect to do the judging?
    You also seem to imply the existence of natural law here (i.e. a moral law that all people know naturally).

  61. 61
    Carlos says:

    (54) The appeal to Wittgenstein is nice, and appropriate. But somehow I’d hoped for a more — well, concilliatory, I guess — response. Why? Because we’re both smart and reasonable people. It’s my irenic temperament.

    If you want to define your way out of the objective reality of the universal experience of the numinous, be my guest. It’s a free country. Please don’t expect me or anyone else who gives the word “objective” its commonly accepted meaning to agree with you.

    An appeal to “commonly accepted meaning” immediately following a reminder of Wittgenstein’s warning about the bewitchments of language? If you insist, but it does look a little bit funny, no?

    If you want to use “objective” to mean “a fundamental component of reality,” that’s one thing. And I can see the thrust of this, really. But I want to clean up the lingo a bit, see if we can work out a better way of making sense of things. That’s what philosophers do.

    I like the phenomenological tradition (Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Buber, Levinas — esp. the last three). And what they were trying to do — and what they did — is provide us with a description of conscious experience.

    Now, is that description “objective” or “subjective”? Neither term seems quite right. On the one hand, their analyses and descriptions are claims to a validity that transcends particular differences between individuals. They aren’t just saying “this is how I see things” but “this is how oneanyone — sees things.” So there’s an explicit claim to the universality of their descriptions.

    But at the same time, phenomenological descriptions are descriptions of minded beings. And that seems to cut against another sense of “objective,” the sense of how objectivity provides with a view from nowhere. When I insist that a certain theory is an objective theory, I’m saying that the theory says how things would be even if there were no minded beings anywhere at all.

    What I was trying to do — what I’m still trying to do — is show that there are difficult tangles here because we use words in many different ways, and that we can untangle ourselves — and show the fly out of the fly-bottle, to use another Wittgenstein bon mot — by making a distinction between the subjective/objective distinction and the universal/particular distinction.

    This allows us to say that there are universal features of subjective experience, and with that notion in place, we can say something about what some of those features are, such as embodiment (Merleau-Ponty), desire (Sartre), and a sense of the numinous.

    At this point, I want to confess a sense of frustration I feel. I feel not just as if we’re talking in different languages, but that I want to be able to talk to you in a shared language, and I feel that you don’t share the desire for a shared vocabulary. No doubt I haven’t provided you with any reasons for why my feelings should be taken into account. But that I should need to do so only reinforces the severity of the conceptual and communicative distance between us. We only seem to be using the same language.

  62. 62
    BarryA says:

    Carlos, writes: “It’s my irenic temperament.” My temperament is far from irenic. My naturally combative temperament (which is reinforced by the adversarial methods of my profession) make me far more likely to yell, “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!” than murmur “Why can’t we all just get along.” If my tone has offended I apologize. No offense was intended.

    “We only seem to be using the same language.” Amen brother, amen. What’s more, I think you are the one tied up in linguistic knots, and no doubt you think the same of me.

    “An appeal to “commonly accepted meaning” immediately following a reminder of Wittgenstein’s warning about the bewitchments of language? If you insist, but it does look a little bit funny, no?”

    Again, I don’t understand you. Perhaps we have a different understanding of Wittgenstein’s take on “meaning.” His most significant contribution to philosophy is his insistence that “meaning is usage.” That is, words mean what they are commonly understood to mean in a particular context. They do not have fixed and immutable (Platonic) meaning.

    It seems to me that it the impenetrable thicket of technical jargon that professional philosophers use (philos-speak I call it) does more to obscure than illuminate.

    Take the word “phenomenological.” You say you like the phenomenological tradition. OK, but I would suggest that the term has no meaning, or it has so many meanings that it is useless unless explains what one means when one uses it, and if that is the case why not just skip the word altogether and explain what one means. For example, you put Husserl in the same list as Heidegger, but they had not just different, but radically different, views on the subject. Words are useful as symbols only if they point to something beyond themselves. I suspect most people would agree with me when I say that “phenomenological” simply does not do that, or (more accurately) it points to so many things beyond itself that it fails to convey meaning.

    What does all this mean for our discussion? It means you are using words that convey no meaning to me (and, I would submit, no one else either). As long as you continue to do that, we are at an impasse.

  63. 63
    Carlos says:

    BarryA,

    I hope that some of your combative temperament rubs off on me.

    Re: Wittgenstein. I agree in part that “meaning is use,” but notice that this has implications that work against both of us. I agree with you that Wittgenstein’s point here is that we use words (e.g. “objective”) in many different ways, and that the error lies in thinking that there’s some common property (‘objectivity’) picked out by each usage.

    What I was trying to do above is point out that ‘objective’ and ‘objectivity’ (also ‘subjective’ and ‘subjectivity’) are used in at least two very different ways. In one sense, objective is used to talk about whatever has ontological priority (“real” as opposed to “nominal” existence, perhaps?). In another sense, objective is used to talk about whatever does not disappear when one stops thinking about it. (Whether something is a “just in one’s mind” or objective, for example.) If one is a dualist, then minds and their contents are objective in one sense but not objective in another. If one is a materialist, then minds and their contents are not objective in either sense.

    Unlike Wittgenstein, I’m not interested in merely letting language be. I want to introduce distinctions in order to make explicit the different ways in which words are used. That’s why I’ve been arguing that the universal experience of the numinous is subjective, in the sense that it is, as an experience, mind-dependent. Whether the object of the experience — the numinous — is mind-independent or not is another question.

    Re: phenomenology. Although Husserl and Heidegger were opposed, their opposition was made possible on the basis of shared commitments, and those shared commitments are substantive enough to give content to “the phenomenological tradition.” Both are committed to giving an account of the structure of appearance. Both reject the priority of naturalism (“psychologism,” as Husserl would say) in providing us with an account of ourselves. Both of them would claim that their analyses are valid a priori, indeed “synthetic a priori“. Is this not enough to speak of a “phenomenological tradition”? If not, why not?

  64. 64
    BarryA says:

    Carlos,

    OK! Now we are getting somewhere.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe you are saying that the term “objective” is used in two different ways:

    1. Whatever has ontological priority (i.e., is “real”).

    2. Whatever does not disappear when one stops thinking about it.

    I assert that the universal experience of the numinous is “objective” in both senses.

    1. We have very good reason to believe that the universal experience of the numinous has ontological priority. It is real in the sense that everyone you ask says they have experienced it at one time or another. Ergo, the universal experience, qua universal experience, by definition, has an objective reality.

    This is the only use of the word “objective” that interests me. But, let’s consider your second category nevertheless:

    2. The universal experience exists “out there” whether I am thinking about it or not. My personal connection to the experience stops when I am not thinking about it, but at any given time others are almost certainly experiencing it even if I am not.

    Wittgenstein: I agree with your point to an extent. We can make useful distinctions with language. On the other hand you can overdo it to the point of absurdity. Take your boy Husserl’s musings about the number “5” as an example. He asks when I count to five is the “five” I get the same “five” you get when you count to five? Are there different “fives” or only individual experiences of the same “five?” This discussion is pointless, even silly. It accomplishes nothing. Wittgenstein would say (and I would agree) these questions are meaningless.

  65. 65
    BarryA says:

    Carlos,

    Also, if you are suggesting that the universal experience of the numinous is not objective if not just I, but everyone, stops thinking about it, I would respond:

    A phenomenon of the mind (i.e., a mental experience) does not exist if all minds stop thinking about it. Duh. That is obviously true in the same way a tautology is obviously true, and it is pointless and unhelpful in the same way a tautology is pointless and unhelpful.

  66. 66
    Karl Pfluger says:

    I think some of the confusion in this thread stems from the ambiguity of the word ‘numinous’ itself. Merriam-webster defines it as

    1 : SUPERNATURAL, MYSTERIOUS
    2 : filled with a sense of the presence of divinity : HOLY
    3 : appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense : SPIRITUAL

    The existence of the numinous, in senses 2 and 3, is an objective fact. The existence of the numinous, in sense 1, is speculative. The fact that the numinous(2) and the numinous(3) are real does not make the numinous(1) any less hypothetical.

    There are good reasons not to allow the experience of the numinous(2) to convince us of the reality of the numinous(1). The main one, in my opinion, is the fact that the experience of the numinous can be induced via psychotropic drugs, by the application of electromagnetic fields to the temporal lobes, and even via seizure in temporal lobe epileptics.

  67. 67
    tinabrewer says:

    Karl Pfluger: see my comment #32 for background on why I think these are terrible reasons to dismiss the possibility of numinous #1. If we view the brain as a “receptive/transmissive” device rather than the generator of consciousness, it makes perfect sense that anything (including drugs, electrical charge and disease) which would affect this device could have the affect of increasing (or diminishing) these numinous experiences. Like a radio being tuned to a very particular frequency and only expressing that particular bit from a broad range of possible streams of information,the brain could potentially be manipulated into recieving more or less of a “numinous frequency” through extraordinary things such as psychotropic drugs and epileptic states.

Leave a Reply