Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Revelation is not good evidence

I had an exchange with a Mormon friend a little while ago. His interesting but ultimately vacuous argument went something like this:

“You say you rely on evidence for the things you believe. But you’re only relying on physical, tangible evidence. You’re not relying on spiritual evidence, and so you’re only getting part of the picture. I’m using the full range of evidence available to us.”

My response is two-fold:

1) There is no empirical evidence for the claims of religion, including the existence of a god, the reality of an afterlife, or various details such as a Tower of Babel, gold plates, or Lamanites. The key doctrines of religious belief systems are either unsupported by evidence, or refuted by evidence. (Occasionally a religion will teach a principle that turns out to be valid — the Mormon prohibition on smoking seems worthwhile on its face — but these are things that could have occured to someone without requiring revelation.)

2) What my friend was calling ‘spiritual evidence’ is actually not good evidence at all. I think he was referring to something Mormons call ‘personal revelation’ — messages that people think they’re getting through prayer.

This is not a good way of finding out what’s true. How you feel about a proposition has nothing to do with whether it’s true or not. You can feel great about things that are completely false. Yet this method is at the very heart of the Mormon conversion experience — and other forms of Christianity also place an emphasis on emotional reasoning.

Let’s take a step back and see how this plays out in LDS missionary work.

LDS missionaries encourage investigators to ‘experiment upon the word‘. And the experiment that they propose is that you can pray and receive answers about the truth of their message telepathically from a god.

They rely on a scripture from the Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:4, which says to ask God, and the Holy Ghost will tell you if it’s true. By doing this, the missionaries commit the fallacy of begging the question — they claim that a god will tell you that the religion is true, but the existence of said god is the very premise under consideration.

And how does the Holy Spirit let you know?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,

Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

That’s a pretty big list of fruits. Almost any feeling could qualify as a confirmation, especially if that’s the conclusion you want to come to, and you wouldn’t be asking if you didn’t have at least a glimmer of hope that it was true.

It should be obvious that this is not a real scientific experiment, and not just because it falls back on supernatural explanations.

  • Scientific experiments use evidence that is empirical — involving sense data that could be observed by anyone
  • Experiments try and control for bias
  • Experiments are replicable — anyone can repeat the experiment, and they should get about the same result. Ideas are verified by multiple points of view.

But so-called personal revelation doesn’t follow these controls.

  • Your feelings can’t be directly observed by other people. That makes it impossible to evaluate someone else’s religious claims, and that means that religious people have to ‘agree to disagree’ when they get conflicting revelations.
  • There’s no way to tell whether the feeling you’re getting is a real live revelation from a god, something from your own mind, or (worse) a temptation from an evil spirit, if you go for that. Or Zeus, Krishna, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’s easy to distinguish between two competing natural claims, but it’s impossible to distinguish between two competing supernatural claims.
  • A scientific experiment attempts to control for bias, but here, the missionaries are subtlely biasing their subjects by telling them what they should expect to feel. It’s sort of like when you’re playing records backwards for satanic messages — it’s hard to tell what the message is until someone gives you the words.
  • The goalposts for this test are defined very vaguely and can be shifted. A confirmation can be ginned up out of the most meager of subjective data — or no data at all. Many are the members who ask for a revelation, get none, and continue in the church anyway, figuring that if they have real faith, they don’t need a spiritual confirmation. It’s a hit if you have good feelings, and hit if you don’t.
  • In a real experiment, we would try to account for both positive and negative results. But here, no attempt is made to add negative results to the sample. People who report a positive result show up in church, but people who get no result don’t, and are effectively deleted from the sample. In fact, if someone doesn’t get a revelation, it’s assumed that they are to blame for not being ‘sincere’ or trying hard enough. They are encouraged to repeat the test until they get a result that the experimenter will like.
  • Worse still, once someone is convinced that they’ve received a message from a god, Latter-day Saints then make a series of logical leaps to show that the whole church is true, from the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith to Thomas Monson and beyond. All from good feelings and not from anything solid.

Not everyone is convinced by this test, but the church doesn’t need everyone to buy it — just enough people to keep the system going. And I can tell you from personal experience that when you think you’ve been touched by the divine, it can be very difficult to balance that against real evidence. No good evidence is going to come out of this kind of test. This is not a valid experiment. It is a recipe for self-deception. It is just asking to be fooled.

90 Comments

  1. Great post. I remember when I was a missionary, part of our teaching method was to help the potential convert identify the spirit. After retelling the 'first vision' I would pause for a few seconds and then ask them about their feelings (how do you feel? what do you feel? etc.) If they responded with anything positive to say, I would immediately say that it was the Spirit. Oh, also we would often preface the 'first vision' account with something like, 'be sure to pay attention to your feelings as we tell you what happened to Joseph Smith.' But then if they didn't feel anything, we would just move on and try to use the same technique with other stories or doctrine. We would seriously try to associate any positive feeling with the Spirit – as if we could enter their brains and know what they were feeling!

  2. Chris, I think you are correct that many missionaries try to fake their way through this whole process. But it would be a mistake to take their personal experiences as indicative of the entire class of spiritual experience.

    Daniel, you are correct that this stuff cannot be publicly observed by all – like a vaccine for West Nile Virus would be. However that does not mean it does not qualify as evidence at all – merely a different kind of evidence.

    Likewise, good feelings are – as you rightly point out – not conclusive evidence. But they certainly qualify as at least personally persuasive evidence. Just because something is subjective does not disqualify it from the realm of evidence altogether.

    It just means you have to use it for different purposes than other types of evidence.

  3. Well, you're right about that — we can't compare revelation to the West Nile vaccine.

    Maybe we should compare it to homeopathy instead. Some people think it gives them benefit (like placebos do), but most rational people already know it doesn't work, the mechanism by which it's supposed to work is farcical, and if you try to use it for anything serious, you're going to be in big trouble.

  4. You can compare it to a placebo if you want. But it's going to be your mere assertion by analogy in that case.

  5. Well, not just that, but also the other things I mentioned in my post.

    I think the analogy's a good one, though. I know a naturopath who thinks she can 'muscle test' people to see what herbs are good for them. She uses it a lot, but strangely she doesn't test for blood type using this technique — she just uses a standard test. When I asked her why, she said that it doesn't seem to work well on blood type — oh, but it does for everything else, just not for something that could be unambiguously disconfirmed. She's not able to see how this resembles something that doesn't work at all. If her predictions fail, she refuses to accept that the technique is bad, she just says that's an 'area' that the test isn't appropriate for.

    What do you think revelation works for? Stuff we can't actually verify? Can you see how that looks like something that doesn't work at all?

  6. Yeah, but I can also see how it looks like something that does work. So we really haven't made any progress here – one way or the other.

  7. It really just comes down to which set of biases you're operating from.

  8. It may look like it works, but (as I said) only if you're overly generous in your interpretations, and willing to exercise bias in favour of the method. Once you stop doing this and examine it more critically, the plausibility evaporates. That's how you know something's not real.

    As a critical thinker, I know I may not be free of bias, but I try to become aware of my biases and outgrow them, not wallow in them.

  9. Plausibility evaporates from your point of view.

    It looks fine from where I'm sitting.

  10. Daniel, while your arguments seem valid on the face of them, you are making a basic set of assumptions yourself, the most prominent of which is that empirical evidence is superior to other types people claim to have. Any good philosopher will challenge your belief that emprical evidence exists at all, so I'd challenge you to show how empirical evidence exists and then go on the prove the causal relationship you seem to believe it has with the phenomena you are attempting to explain. In short, the fact that you haven't come across individuals in religion, mormonism etc who don't have intellects equal to your own doesn't show anything at all about the things either of you claim.

    • This is a common but ultimately doomed attempt to shift the burden of proof. The problem of hard solipsism is equally pressing on the empiricist as everyone else. Whether we're in "The Matrix" or not, we live in a world where experiments are confirmed by our peers (or not) in a repeatable way.

      Empirical evidence was used to discover the germ theory of disease, computers, and every other useful technology of the past millenia.

      By contrast, revelation has produced nothing of measurable value, while being the direct cause of a number of wars and atrocities.

    • So, anonymous, you're asking for evidence of evidence?

      That must mean that you already believe that evidence exists, otherwise you wouldn't have asked for it.

      I don't need to convince you of something you already believe.

  11. Anon: If you were accused of a murder, but they didn't have any evidence against you, then it would be okay if they convicted you based on a hunch or an impression someone had?

    That doesn't sound like the kind of thing 'any good philosopher' would say. It sounds like what an armchair philosopher would say. It gives you wrong answers, which is how you know your philosophy sucks.

    And, of course, if we can't show that evidence exists, the theist will have an even more difficult time showing that their god exists, so this doesn't help the case for gods at all.

  12. Yeah, except we're talking about purely philosophical topics here.

    Not going to jail.

  13. Anon was knocking back the very idea of evidence, and challenged me to show that it exists.

    I did.

  14. Well, as a philosophical matter, no you didn't.

    As a pragmatic argument, your statements work fine.

    But whatever. This is his line of argument, not mine.

  15. Works in practice, but not in theory, eh?

  16. Daniel, You appear to believe that I am taking the standpoint that Mormons take regarding feelings as evidence etc. I am not.

    I am sure I witnessed you claiming a number of years ago that you knew the church was true. If you know something that is later proven to be false, did you ever know it and, if not, what is your relationship with it? If things that you claim to "know" now have the possibility of being proven untrue in the future as in the case with many scientific claims, "knowledge" as an absolute does not seem to be possible since you never know when it might be disproven.

    You however, seem to be claiming "knowledge" of some things so I'd be interested to know what evidence you have that absolutely proves these things and how you know this be the case. What unshakeable evidence is there in a changing world?

    If you look very closely you'll se that few if any epistemological claims are able to stand up in the way that those claiming knowledge would hope; as absoultes. In fact, I'd say "none" but then this would suggest I know this and need to provide evidence! If this is the case, what qualifies empirical evidence as superior to other kinds since it is all destined to fail. Contradictions, dichotomies, paradoxes etc do exist in Science as in other areas relying on evidence.

    The fact that our culture privileges some evidence over others such as in your hypothetical court case doesn't mean that in absolute terms this relationship actually exists. As a semiotician I would have thought you'd be the first to point this out!

  17. p.s. I can't see anything in your argument that proves that "evidence" exists. You have shown that courts label a particular kind of statement "evidence" but, since you assumed I was taking the side of religion, you seem to have let this fact colour your argument. Now, what about "evidence"?

  18. Actually, if you read my response, I was careful not to assume any theism on your part.

    My point here is that you already know (or I hope you do) that some kinds of evidence are better than others. If you don't, then I don't know what kind of evidence I could enlist to convince you, since you wouldn't believe it exists.

    But let's try it again. If I claim to have eaten a PBJ sandwich, there are better and worse kinds of evidence you could use to establish this. I'll put them in order from best to worst.
    1. Pump my stomach and see if the contents appear sandwichy.
    2. Check my kitchen to see if sticky knives are in the sink, jars and crumbs on the counter.
    3. Use your knowledge of my likes and dislikes.
    4. Ask me.

    These are all kinds of evidence, and none but the most obtuse philosopher would claim they simply don't exist. Number 1 is (I will argue) the best because it's empirical — anyone can observe it. Number 2 is a bit circumstantial, 3 more so. Four isn't very good — I could lie. Now let's add:

    5. Pray about it.

    I'd say this one doesn't even qualify as evidence, for reasons I mentioned in my post.

    I do agree with you on one thing: old knowledge is never held to be unconditionally true, but can in fact be overturned as new evidence comes in. When I found that, as a Mormon, my former understanding was very likely to be wrong, and I'd been using the faulty metric of revelation, I changed my beliefs. And so it is with my current view — I'll stay open to new evidence as it comes in. I have never disagreed with this, but have said it many times on this blog.

    You say I am claiming some kind of knowledge. What are you referring to? All I've said is that the claims of theists are inadequate to establish their claims. If I haven't been clear on this, please let me know where so I can clarify.

    Also, you are making the blunder of rejecting anything that isn't 100% proven, and since nothing can be proven 100%, you want to throw out everything. I hope you don't really believe this — it would be awfully hard to live in the real world. We can actually do a lot with even the fragmentary and incremental evidence that we have.

    My spider sense is telling me that you might be someone I knew from my BYU Linguistics days.

  19. OK Daniel, let's take your claim that "some kinds of evidence are better than others…" This statement hides a number of basic assumptions all of which are available for challenge. I might ask, on what are you basing this claim? Your answer would necessarily reveal the assumptions you have already made without the evidence you used to support them. Your hope that I "know" this, is simply a hope that I'm making the assumptions that you are making.

  20. Please explicitly justify your claim that "some kinds of evidence are better than others." Try to avoid examples of how the culture uses evidence (as in your court case example) since these examples avoid the pure reason you are claiming to have. Mormonism has a culture that places certain kinds of evidence over others that is similar to your claim even though the conclusions you reach are different. Why are yours more valid?

  21. In answer to your post however:

    1. Pumping your stomach only works if I claim to have prior knowledge of "sandwichy" etc and its relationship to the food you consume. You might say this is common knowledge but again, you would be basing this on your own experience.

    2 Sticky knives etc do not add anything to the argument since I do not have any knowledge of how they became sticky.

    3. "Knowledge" of your dislikes, likes etc would only work if they were definitive and, I am arguing that definitive evidence doesn't exist. In any case, as you say, they are circumstantial. Errr… much like the evidence used by Mormons to justify their claims. A causal relationship is established by contextualising the evidence

    4. Asking you as evidence is out there since I can't know when you're telling the truth, acting in accordance with an erroneous belief etc viz. "I know the church is true…" etc

    5. Praying is as valid as any of the other forms of evidence as you can't know what my relationship with deity, evil spirits etc is and their commitment to providing evidence. Since you can only talk about your own experience with these things, you do not have the right to assert that your experience is in any way similar to mine nor can you generalise based on your own experience or lack thereof… In fact, WS Gilbert argues that my experience of you is more valid than yours!(Ghost In The Machine)

    Then you go on to say the best form of evidence is empirical. Even Descartes (as naive as his conclusions ended up being)disproved this in saying that your senses often lie. Obviously you are not aware when they're lying, so empirical evidence cannot be trusted.

    And then you agree that "knowledge" cannot be held to be unconditional. I would ask, if this is so, what's the difference between knowledge and belief? When people in our culture use the word "knowledge" they are NOT referring to something that's iffy. They are referring to something CERTAIN. If things that are certain are open to challenge, they are not certain and, as we can't know when they'll be challenged (otherwise we wouldn't refer to them as "knowledge") Knowledge in the sense we use the word can't exist. If this is so, the claims of Mormonism are are as valid as the claims of Einstein as neither have sufficient evidence to support them nor could they have.

    Your argument about 100% proven seems to answer itself. If nothing can be 100% proven, what percentage would you accept as qualifying for "knowledge"? What about as percent less than that? etc etc

    Finally, your "spider sense" is also incorrect. I've known you much more recently than that! I doubt that you would even remember me even though we met many times as you were already in your "all mormon intellects are inferior to mine" stage when we met. I also am an ex Mormon although my experiences have been vastly different to yours in many ways.

    The central claim of Mormonism is essentially an epistemological claim and, in my opinion, fails beacuse of the semiotic games it wishes to play with the word "knowledge." It fails on many other counts however I managed to survive my tendency to dismiss deity as I dismissed Mormonism. I believe (not know!) there is much evidence of deity but it has little to do with Mormonism. I hope you are enjoying the game as much as I am since "armchair philosopher" etc came close to being abusive. In fact, I have five degrees including a PhD and enjoy intellectual banter. Hope you do too!

  22. In answer to your post however:

    1. Pumping your stomach only works if I claim to have prior knowledge of "sandwichy" etc and its relationship to the food you consume. You might say this is common knowledge but again, you would be basing this on your own experience.

    2 Sticky knives etc do not add anything to the argument since I do not have any knowledge of how they became sticky.

    3. "Knowledge" of your dislikes, likes etc would only work if they were definitive and, I am arguing that definitive evidence doesn't exist. In any case, as you say, they are circumstantial. Errr… much like the evidence used by Mormons to justify their claims. A causal relationship is established by contextualising the evidence

    4. Asking you as evidence is out there since I can't know when you're telling the truth, acting in accordance with an erroneous belief etc viz. "I know the church is true…" etc

    5. Praying is as valid as any of the other forms of evidence as you can't know what my relationship with deity, evil spirits etc is and their commitment to providing evidence. Since you can only talk about your own experience with these things, you do not have the right to assert that your experience is in any way similar to mine nor can you generalise based on your own experience or lack thereof… In fact, WS Gilbert argues that my experience of you is more valid than yours!(Ghost In The Machine)

    Then you go on to say the best form of evidence is empirical. Even Descartes (as naive as his conclusions ended up being)disproved this in saying that your senses often lie. Obviously you are not aware when they're lying, so empirical evidence cannot be trusted.

    And then you agree that "knowledge" cannot be held to be unconditional. I would ask, if this is so, what's the difference between knowledge and belief? When people in our culture use the word "knowledge" they are NOT referring to something that's iffy. They are referring to something CERTAIN. If things that are certain are open to challenge, they are not certain and, as we can't know when they'll be challenged (otherwise we wouldn't refer to them as "knowledge") Knowledge in the sense we use the word can't exist. If this is so, the claims of Mormonism are are as valid as the claims of Einstein as neither have sufficient evidence to support them nor could they have.

    Your argument about 100% proven seems to answer itself. If nothing can be 100% proven, what percentage would you accept as qualifying for "knowledge"? What about as percent less than that? etc etc

    Finally, your "spider sense" is also incorrect. I've known you much more recently than that! I doubt that you would even remember me even though we met many times as you were already in your "all mormon intellects are inferior to mine" stage when we met. I also am an ex Mormon although my experiences have been vastly different to yours in many ways.

    The central claim of Mormonism is essentially an epistemological claim and, in my opinion, fails beacuse of the semiotic games it wishes to play with the word "knowledge." It fails on many other counts however I managed to survive my tendency to dismiss deity as I dismissed Mormonism. I believe (not know!) there is much evidence of deity but it has little to do with Mormonism. I hope you are enjoying the game as much as I am since "armchair philosopher" etc came close to being abusive. In fact, I have five degrees including a PhD and enjoy intellectual banter. Hope you do too!

  23. In answer to your post however:

    1. Pumping your stomach only works if I claim to have prior knowledge of "sandwichy" etc and its relationship to the food you consume. You might say this is common knowledge but again, you would be basing this on your own experience.

    2 Sticky knives etc do not add anything to the argument since I do not have any knowledge of how they became sticky.

    3. "Knowledge" of your dislikes, likes etc would only work if they were definitive and, I am arguing that definitive evidence doesn't exist. In any case, as you say, they are circumstantial. Errr… much like the evidence used by Mormons to justify their claims. A causal relationship is established by contextualising the evidence

    4. Asking you as evidence is out there since I can't know when you're telling the truth, acting in accordance with an erroneous belief etc viz. "I know the church is true…" etc

    5. Praying is as valid as any of the other forms of evidence as you can't know what my relationship with deity, evil spirits etc is and their commitment to providing evidence. Since you can only talk about your own experience with these things, you do not have the right to assert that your experience is in any way similar to mine nor can you generalise based on your own experience or lack thereof… In fact, WS Gilbert argues that my experience of you is more valid than yours!(Ghost In The Machine)

    Then you go on to say the best form of evidence is empirical. Even Descartes (as naive as his conclusions ended up being)disproved this in saying that your senses often lie. Obviously you are not aware when they're lying, so empirical evidence cannot be trusted.

    And then you agree that "knowledge" cannot be held to be unconditional. I would ask, if this is so, what's the difference between knowledge and belief? When people in our culture use the word "knowledge" they are NOT referring to something that's iffy. They are referring to something CERTAIN. If things that are certain are open to challenge, they are not certain and, as we can't know when they'll be challenged (otherwise we wouldn't refer to them as "knowledge") Knowledge in the sense we use the word can't exist. If this is so, the claims of Mormonism are are as valid as the claims of Einstein as neither have sufficient evidence to support them nor could they have.

    Your argument about 100% proven seems to answer itself. If nothing can be 100% proven, what percentage would you accept as qualifying for "knowledge"? What about as percent less than that? etc etc

    Finally, your "spider sense" is also incorrect. I've known you much more recently than that! I doubt that you would even remember me even though we met many times as you were already in your "all mormon intellects are inferior to mine" stage when we met. I also am an ex Mormon although my experiences have been vastly different to yours in many ways.

    The central claim of Mormonism is essentially an epistemological claim and, in my opinion, fails beacuse of the semiotic games it wishes to play with the word "knowledge." It fails on many other counts however I managed to survive my tendency to dismiss deity as I dismissed Mormonism. I believe (not know!) there is much evidence of deity but it has little to do with Mormonism. I hope you are enjoying the game as much as I am since "armchair philosopher" etc came close to being abusive. In fact, I have five degrees including a PhD and enjoy intellectual banter. Hope you do too!

  24. Please explicitly justify your claim that "some kinds of evidence are better than others."

    Okay. Here's a thought-experiment.

    Let's play a game where I write down a number on a piece of paper, and you have to tell what number I wrote based on available evidence.

    In one iteration of the game, you're allowed to observe directly what I've written. In another, you're only allowed to use hunches and impressions.

    You will get the right answer more often in the first iteration, when you use directly observable empirical evidence. That's assuming you're playing the game fairly, and not trying to give wrong answers on purpose.

    I think 'getting the right answer' is a reasonable metric to use when evaluating whether the evidence was good or not.

    If you disagree with this thought-experiment, why not try it a few times with a friend, and report back what you found?

    One more thing:

    Try to avoid examples of how the culture uses evidence (as in your court case example) since these examples avoid the pure reason you are claiming to have.

    I do not claim to have pure reason. I claim to use a system (science) that is constructed by humans to understand the world, and that it works well enough.

  25. Same tiger-different stripes. You put your faith in a system that "works well enough." Mormons and other religious people do the same. You can't come up with any real evidence to support your view and you feel that they can't either.

    Enough time wasted…

  26. You asked me to explain why some evidence is better than others. I have given you a clear and unambiguous example.

    If you prefer poor evidence and wrong answers, I can't help you. You're going to have to fix your problems on your own time.

  27. That was one of the most bizarre conversations I have ever read.

    I wonder why Anonymous thinks that all Faith is the same. Sure there are assumptions to be made in the realm of science. But to assume that God spoke to you via feelings is incomprehensible.

  28. Incomprehensible to coldly hyper-cerebral Americans perhaps, but not in other cultures.

    This idea would not be odd at all in Japan, for instance.

  29. Yeah, that's the problem with Americans. They're too cerebral. They just don't engage in emotional reasoning often enough. Cold and clinical thinking machines, they are. Unlike the Japanese.

    Thanks for making me laugh, and for exposing your anti-brain bias.

  30. Emotions are a powerful part of the brain. They often make far better decisions than your other reasoning does.

    I suppose your remarks above were a subtle and mocking reference to your belief in the Japanese being a bunch of robots. Or am I misreading you?

  31. Emotions are a powerful part of the brain.

    I can go with this in part. One thing I got from reading 'The Gift of Fear' by Gavin de Becker was that our brains are really good at pulling in lots of information from who knows where, and coming up with answers who knows how. Our brains are great probabilistic pattern-finders, and this seems to work under the level of our conscious awareness.

    But there are lots of circumstances under which they don't work — complexity, stress, unusual situations — and emotional reasoning will have us making worse decisions.

    They often make far better decisions than your other reasoning does.

    Why do you think that?

  32. Because my own instincts have tended to be right.

    I've had plenty of life instances where cerebral rationalizing was coming up short. Sometimes it was even yielding a plain conclusion. But the instincts were persistently telling me otherwise.

    I went with instinct, and… it turned out to be exactly right. As a result of repeated instances of this throughout my life, I've come to trust my instincts far more than pure logic.

    Not to say logic has no place. Instinct works better when it is informed. But these are my own life conclusions.

    And I've seen too many highly intelligent people think their way into very poor life decisions to be all that highly impressed by a culture that favors logic over all else, and sneers at gut instinct.

  33. 'A culture that favors logic over all else'? I wish I knew what culture you're describing. It's certainly not the one I'm in. The one I'm in has tons of people giving money away to eager charlatans, priests, and psychics. They think with their gut, all right. But guts are for digestion, not for cognition.

    Instinct and intuition are worthwhile as sources of information. But their proper place is way below evidence and reason.

    I'm glad you've made some good decisions in your life. But if you believe your intuitions are infallible, you run the risk of selective observation. We have a very strong tendency to see what we want to see and forget what we don't. You may be remembering the times you got it right with emotional reasoning, but forgetting times when you got it wrong.

    And when your intuition involves so-called revelation, then things get really hairy. Now you imagine that your intuitions are coming from a god, and the conclusions the god gives you must be defended, since your god can never be wrong. If your revelation turns out wrong, it must be rewritten or reinterpreted.

    No thanks. I love my emotions, but I'm not going to let them run the show.

  34. I agree that emotion is often an important guide to action. The way I feel about an action may be an important and useful part of making a decision about whether to do it.

    But I don't think emotion is a good guide to belief. The way I feel about a piece of information is irrelevant to whether it's factual or not. In fact, the way I feel about a piece of information can easily interfere with my ability to discern whether it's factual or not.

  35. Who said anything about infallibility Daniel?

    I get the feeling that you've been repeatedly trying to paint my position as more extreme than it is as a way of making it easier for you to argue with it.

    Quit being lazy.

  36. Okay, you haven't said that your gut instincts and emotions are infallible. Instead, I'll say, "But if you believe your intuitions are extremely reliable, you run the risk of selective observation."

    I will say, though, that if you think your feelings are revelations that come from an infallible god, then, yes, you'd have to think they were infallible. But I won't pursue that for the moment.

  37. No, that doesn't work either.

    As a Mormon, I do not believe in any infallible transmission of the divine.

    All communication from the divine must consist of two parts – the sender, and the recipient. One is considered infallible, but the other is not.

    Thus the equation must always be flawed and fallible.

    No guarantees in life. Religion doesn't change that.

  38. Well, at least I feel like I understand you a little better.

  39. Daniel, your basic argument is: "whatever I believe to be true at any particular time, is true." You then apparently reserve the right to deride any one who does not agree with you in your smart arsed, sarcastic way.

    You apparently don't even read posts carefully before replying or perhaps you lack the intellectual apparatus necessary to actually understand what is being said! You run with strands such as "platonism," "Pure Reason," that were not given the prominece in posts that you claim.

    I saw you do this when you were a Mormon and now, when you are not.

    You are entitled to do this in a free society. Religious devotion was presented by you in one incarnation as a reason to deride others who didn't share it and now, in another, intellectualism (pseudo).

    If you work at UWA, the standard of selection has dropped enough to be putting students who might need to have the thinking skills/capacities to go onto post grad work, at risk. I must speak to Alan about that.

    Midegeley…Midegeley…is this a new way of describing your intellect/arguments?

  40. Ugh. You still sound like a Mormon. No one's tried to call me a pseudo-intellectual since my church days.

    It seems you felt I'd slighted you when we were in contact. I've wondered if that was perhaps because of my bad attitude, but now I think I probably ignored you because you had nothing of value to say. Usually I'm patient, but one does have limits.

  41. Funny Daniel…

    He sounds like a lot of atheists I've encountered online.

  42. Incomprehensible to coldly hyper-cerebral Americans perhaps, but not in other cultures.

    If only we were having this conversation a couple hundred years ago about epilepsy vs. demon possession or any other number of things. Would you still say the same thing?

  43. Extreme examples aren't going to get this discussion anywhere.

  44. That's not an extreme example at all. That's a perfectly scriptural example.

  45. Since when has the word "scriptural" come to be synonymous with "not extreme?"

  46. Since Mark 9:17, that's when.

    It would be good if you knew your scriptures as well as an atheist.

  47. Sorry, I suppose you're trying to be witty, but I'm not getting this one.

  48. Heh, look I just thought it was interesting that I was labeled as being hyper-cerebral and that somebody would use that as a diss (but I'm taking it as a compliment just so you know).

    1. How is being hyper-cerebral bad and what do you mean by it?
    2. It appears to me that most people are hyper-cerebral compared to many people of years past. Science is explaining many supposed supernatural phenomena with simple natural explanations. It appears that more and more people these days are accepting these explanations from science. Some just go a few steps further than others.

  49. Oh, science is doing a grand job of explaining the immediate "how" of things.

    It's just not doing much to explain the "why" of things, and never has.

    Which is why I consider science to be largely irrelevant to metaphysical discussion to begin with.

  50. So science can't offer a good enough explanation of why good feeling/bad feelings/no feelings occur after praying?

    So, you automatically defer to the supernatural explanation. Why?

    Why do you believe in personal revelation? How did you verify that it works?

  51. Science merely explains how something works. Like synapses in the brain firing off, or certain chemical reactions stimulating a response.

    It doesn't really say why we're wired that way.

    I'm perfectly willing to accept a scientific explanation for a warm feeling experienced during prayer.

    I just don't feel that the scientific explanation says anything about why we are ultimately wired that way, and what sort of personal meaning we are supposed to take from it.

  52. The problem is that supernatural explanations also don't tell us 'why'.

    They just give us fluffy stories that we can't verify.

  53. If Mormons called you pseudo intellectual and I do too, there appears to be concensus! Give it up mate and go back to dazzling first years-you can't cut it with the big people.

  54. Hm, it appears Seth you went a step further about what science can't explain.

    From my amateur perspective, I think science (psychology & neuroscience) can explain emotions and how they are derived. It appears that you wouldn't take issue with this though. You take it to the next level and say that science can't explain why we were wired to have neurons in the first place. Is this correct?

  55. This is actually a good example of how science can tell us why. We evolved complex brains with neurons because complex brains helped us survive.

  56. Why bother surviving?

  57. That part is up to you.

  58. That's the point though Daniel.

    There are places that science just doesn't go.

  59. Your point was that science doesn't tell us 'why'. I gave as example of how it does.

    Now you say that the 'why' that science gives us doesn't go far enough for you. Okay, but that's no different from the 'how'. A while ago, science couldn't tell us 'how', and even now we could argue that the 'how' doesn't go far enough.

    Science is advancing our knowledge in both the 'why' and the 'how'.

  60. Point is – there's a wall the "how" won't cross.

    Basically whenever you start making normative proposals.

    Take Attention Deficit Disorder.

    Science can locate the reactions in the brain that cause it, find chemicals that counter-act or alter it. It can explain the chemical reactions.

    But does it tell us what to do with people who are ADD?

    Should we alter them? Leave them be? Make them our rulers? Shoot them all?

    What does science have to say about any of that.

    Zip. Nadda. Goose eggs. You've hit a wall.

  61. It looks to me that Seth is talking about a different type of why: purpose.

  62. Setting definitions in these kind of conversations is always difficult.

  63. True, true. I think we would need to define purpose a little better too. Sometimes people consider natural selection to be purpose-like. But I think you are referring to a more grandiose purpose, like divine purpose. Why do you assume that there should be a divine purpose to existence?

    I've re-read some of these comments and I just want to say that the reason I consider empirical evidence better than spiritual is because there is a lack of a criteria or standard to separate the legitimate spiritual evidence from the bogus spiritual evidence. How do you distinguish authentic epiphanies from those that are based in delusions, fantasies, ideologies, etc, etc? There is no way to separate the two. What reason do you have to think that some feelings or epiphanies are God induced? Is there a method that can be used to discriminate between a God-inspired spiritual experience and fantasy?

    I understand the fallibility of senses which can potentially make empirical evidence unreliable. But because of our ability to cross examine empirical evidence, I would trust it more than spiritual evidence. I have no reason to begin to trust or believe in spiritual evidence.

  64. Just wanted to add that my previous comment pretty much was derived from Daniel's post. So it was just re-wording. But anyway, that's why I think it's a mistake to equate the assumptions being made as Anon was pointing out.

  65. First off, I would point out that as long as the spiritual experience isn't doing real ethical harm here, the practical risk of "being duped" is very low, and the benefits can actually be significant.

    In the case of Mormonism, this is not always the case. There can be real drawbacks to joining. 10% of income isn't anything to sneeze at.

    You just have to weigh whether the benefits you are getting from participation, and from the worldview outweigh the detriments. I see no other practical way to go about it.

  66. I've said this before, but you're really lucky to be in such a progressive religion (relatively speaking). I'm not going to address your comment anymore than that.

    I am still interested in finding a method that can be used to discriminate between a God-inspired spiritual experience and simple fantasy. And even if I did find this method, I would hope that I wouldn't judge the practicality of the religion of which the Spirit testified to me. If I could reliably determine the authenticity of the spiritual experience and if God told me to join the most whacked out religion, I hope I would have the Faith-balls to do so.

  67. Just discovering the mere existence of God is not – in and of itself – sufficient reason to worship him or obey him.

  68. I suppose what I was trying to say is that practicality is a relative term. I'm not a scholar of ancient religions, but I wonder if it would be a wise thing to consider the practicality of the religion of the Bible (if you were a seeker for the true religion and believed in God). Were there other more practical or useful worldviews at the time? Why should practicality or usefulness of the religion be considered? Isn't Truth just Truth?

  69. Is it truth because it is good? Or is it good because it is truth?

  70. Rachel Woodard

    10 August 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Anonymous come back! I enjoyed your clever arguments. Please let the banter continue

  71. Seth, I'm not sure. I was trying to be a little facetious when I said, "isn't Truth just Truth" because I don't really believe that in the strictest sense.

    However, if I were a believer and God told me the truth and I could verify that it was the truth, then I think I would try to believe that truth regardless of its practicality or usefulness.

  72. Again, just something being factually so does not make it worth knowing or devoting yourself to it.

    The "truth" is out there about what Michael Jackson kept in his sock drawer.

    I just frankly don't care.

  73. Hm, never got around to commenting but I'm back…

    Seth, so I should disregard any personal revelation if I think that following what the revelation said could lead to some type of personal harm? How do you know what the threshold is? I mean to some 10% is a lot to sacrifice, but to others it's not that big of a deal. How do you factor in potential harm a personal revelation can potentially lead one to? And why should it be a factor? If God told you to join a religion that requires 100% tithing, is it probable that the personal revelation was simply misinterpretation on your part because 100% tithing is too much? Is the practicality of a religion a pre-requisite for determining if it is true or not?

  74. I think practicality or usefulness is a measure of truth as we are using it here. Truth is not the same thing as mere fact.

    The flag is red, white, and blue is a fact.

    The flag enrages people because it is a Confederate flag and is considered a racist icon is a truth.

    Unlike mere fact, truth motivates action and feeling. Facts are relevant to truth, but they do not comprehensively encompass it. I don't go out there and devote my life to the fact that the flag is red white and blue. But soldiers have died for the meaning behind those colors when they combine to symbolize the ideals of the USA on the "Stars and Stripes."

    If you're looking for hard and fast rules or bright dividing lines, I don't think there are any. Utility is a part of the truth of something. And the relative harm or use of an ideal must be factored into your calculations of what truth is.

    If you're losing 100% of your income to a religious organization, that is a fact. It's also a fact that you won't have that money to use for other things. You have to weigh that against the facts of what the money is being used for, how you are going to make a living, what sort of support the religious organization is giving to you, and a number of other factors.

    All of this contributes to the overall truth of the matter. A set of facts which motivate belief or action.

  75. I can't see why Daniel has allowed this conversation to go on so long.

    Seth R and Anon are just being silly or obtuse now. Or are they just dumb as rocks?

  76. If you're losing 100% of your income to a religious organization, that is a fact. It's also a fact that you won't have that money to use for other things. You have to weigh that against the facts of what the money is being used for, how you are going to make a living, what sort of support the religious organization is giving to you, and a number of other factors.

    But the Spirit told me to join this religion! It was God himself! God told our Prophet that we need to donate all of our money and live in a commune because Jesus is coming again in only a few months!

    This is the truth Seth. I'm sorry that you are put off by it because it seems impractical. But you will be sorry. You will be sorry.

  77. Sorry, did you have a question for me Chris?

  78. I don't think so.

  79. Oh. That's cool then.

  80. Daniel, you're killing me.

    When Seth said "Why bother surviving?" you gave him the impression that science doesn't explain that.

    But evolutionary theory and other sciences explain this well enough.

    To start, the people who didn't have an innate desire to survive didn't survive, and so the ones who did reproduced and passed on this innate feeling (just like the ones who feared death were more likely to pass their genes on).

  81. Open, still doesn't tell us why we should value survival. Just describes how we wound up with the impulse.

    So you're not making any progress here on your argument.

    • What more of a 'why' answer do you want, Seth? He's got it down to the damn mechanism.

      There's a different sort of 'why' answer you're looking for, but this wouldn't even be as good an answer as the one Openminded has given you. Accept it, and move on.

  82. I might say the same to you. You're not presenting an argument. Just saying, in essence:

    1. I hold my position, and
    2. Stop disagreeing with me

    • No, not at all. I'm trying to explain about two different kinds of 'why' questions. If you've seen the Dawkins/Pell debate, this will be old hat, but here it is.

      If someone were to ask "Why are there mountains?" that could be taken two ways:
      1. What's the purpose of mountains?
      2. What are the incident causes that led to mountains?

      Question 1 is not a very good question because it's not as though mountains are for anything. There are lots of things we could do with mountains, but mountains don't really have an intended purpose.

      Question 2 is a really interesting question because then we can get into plate tectonics and geology, and actually learn something.

      Openminded gave you a type 2 answer for why we think living is a good thing, but you seem to want a type 1 answer. I don't think that kind of answer is as good as the one you got.

  83. Apples and oranges.

    When you are talking ethics, human values, aesthetics, and so forth – it's ALWAYS type 1 questions.

    For which science can never play more than a supporting role.

    Basically, it's interesting to talk about why humans evolved social impulse, but in the end – it's mere trivia. It doesn't tell us jack-diddly about what we should value as a species and develop our morality.

    • You've made two statements, both of which are, I think, not quite correct.

      >When you are talking ethics, human values, aesthetics, and so forth – it's ALWAYS type 1 questions.

      No, these areas are just as amenable to type 2 questions. Type 2 questions have the added benefit of being testable.

      >For which science can never play more than a supporting role.

      On my list of books to read over the holidays is Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, where he argues that science can inform our values and morality if we're willing to define what those terms mean. For example, if I say that something is good if it has good consequences (a consequentialist view), then I can use science to investigate consequences. I haven't read the book yet, so I might have more to say on that later. At the moment, I think that if science can't do it, nothing else is going to do any better.

      I can accept that you think Type 1 'why' questions are important. I don't think Type 2 ones are trivial. I think they're interesting.

  84. I don't think type 2 questions are trivial in general. Just for certain issues.

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