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Devin Tarr

Master's Student, California State University Chico

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Why should presuppose that the cause of religious experience must be natural?

As I was watching Mr. Haidt's talk, I was struck with what he categorized as the "million dollar question". He says:

"Is the staircase a feature of our evolutionary design? Is it a product of natural selection like our hands? Or, is it a bug? A mistake in the system . . . religious stuff just happens when the wires cross in the brain?"

It seems, considering the testimony of those having such experiences, that we should at least consider whether they're caused by a super-natural explanation. It struck me as odd that Mr Haidt's logic went like this:

1) People have self-transcendent experiences, through religion or other means
2) What could be the cause of these experiences?
3) They must either be a natural feature of humanity, or a delusion producing bug in our biological system.

It seems to me there's an obvious third question as well. Is there something beyond us (super-natural) that we're connecting to, or is connecting to us.


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      Mar 15 2012: Sorry I should clarify. I'm using "natural" in the sense of "explainable through material causes." Most of the people who have religious experiences would say they are connecting with, or experiencing, something that transcends physical realm.

      Mr. Haidt seeks to explain such claims through physical means, saying they're due to either a feature of homo sapiens as a homo duplex creature, or a bug of our biology.

      My question is why should we be so quick to dismiss the claims of those who have such experiences? Maybe they are indeed connecting to a supernatural reality, such as the Creator of the universe.
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        Mar 15 2012: Devin,

        I don't think Haidt is dismissing the idea that religious experiences are supernaturally caused on a whim; I believe that he has good evidence to reject a supernatural explanation. After all, religious claims are made time and time again, and science eventually debunks them; that is, science shows that said claims have some *natural* cause rather than a supernatural one. Isn't it logical, then, to assume that religious experiences can *also* be explained naturally? Moreover, David Hume's criticism of miracles is applicable here, I believe. What's more probable? That religious experiences are supernatural in nature, which entails a domain of existence that no one has *objectively* confirmed (and we can't assume that it exists in the case of religious experience), or that religious experience, like all of our other experiences, have a natural explanation? There are other problems, too. For instance, person A has revelation X and person B has revelation Y, and X and Y are contradictory. Again, what is the *best explanation* for this phenomenon? That a "cosmic revealer" discloses contradictory messages to some people, or that there is no such revealer and their revelations are the result of natural causes?
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          R H 30+

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          Mar 16 2012: Evidence Shmevidence.When did we get so grand that we thought our little selves on this pathetically tiny microdot of a dust ball in an oscure postiion in the universe can see its totality (might I add 'the known universe')? We've just begun to have confidence in scientific method within the last few hundred years. Yet we're 'there'? We 'get it' now? We can discount intuition, experience, sensitivity which we have yet to fully explore. We can do this because we've figured how to find organic cells and throw them together and watch what happens. We found energy in sub-microscopic life- again, only on this pathetically insignificant dustball - and we now understand the immensity of possibility in infinity. We discount through our self-importance and mutually agreed upon groupthink and prove we are correct to each other. And what is the result? Nothing but division. No harmony of effort. We like to be 'right' so we can destroy our 'opponent' rather than take in humility that which we can offer to each other for the betterment of all. There is no evidence therefore it doesn't exist. I'll remember that when I clean a dust-mite from my floor. I'll have comfort knowing it thinks I don't exist.
        • Mar 16 2012: RH,

          If I understand you correctly, you're arguing in favour of epistemic humility. That is, you're arguing that we shouldn't be quick to dismiss claims about the world because we have only a tiny, flimsy, and very recent ability to detect anything beyond our own eyes, or explain those things we do see before our faces, for that matter.

          This is an important thing to remember, for sure. But at the same time, I still think we can speak with a sort of provisional certainty about many of our recent discoveries in physics or biology. We have developed, in the short time that something recognisable as the scientific method has been around, the ability to so perfectly predict the behaviour of subatomic particles that our maths couldn't really get that much more precise. We've developed the ability to selectively activate and deactivate specific genes. In short, while we should remember our limitations, I think we can still have some justified confidence in the rigours and strengths of the scientific method, and thus we can - provisionally, with the door always open to have our minds changed - reject claims which seem contrary to our most-sound seeming understandings of people and minds. And as Paul stated earlier, some claims appear internally self-contradictory, and if there is one thing of which we can all be certain, it is the basic rules of logic: it is impossible for P and not-P to both be the case.
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          Mar 16 2012: Dear Paul, thank you for your engagement!

          First, there is in fact good evidence for a transcendent personal Creator. Consider the question regarding the Universe's origins:

          1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause (something cannot come from nothing)
          2) The universe began to exist (Hawking-Penrose Singularity Theorem/Big Bang Model)
          3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.

          As the cause of all space, time, matter, and energy, the cause must be spaceless, timeless, immaterial, unimaginably powerful, and lastly personal--as that's the only way for a timeless cause to give rise to a temporal effect. Thus the origin of the universe provides strong evidence for a transcendent personal Creator.

          In regard to Hume, you should read John Earman's book, "Hume's Abject Failure" (2000). In it he notes how Hume's argument rests on a key oversight of probability theory; namely, that extraordinarily improbable events happen ALL the time, but we believe them because of the evidence for them. Put another way, one must not only consider the probability of an events occurance, but also the probability that we should have the evidence we do if that event did not occur. We believe the winning lottery number is accurate (even though its enormously improbable) because its even more improbable that the news should read the number as correct if it weren't true. Hume only considered the intrinsic improbability of miracles without also addressing the probability that we would have the evidence we do if it did not occur.

          On contradictory religious experiences, just because there are counterfeits of something, doesn't mean the real thing is also false.


          I just found it odd that Mr. Haidt would assume every religious experience only has a natural explanation (which he couldn't identify), instead of being open to maybe there being something more. That's all.

      • Mar 16 2012: Scientific theories should be plausible. There exist plausible explanations for the feeling of 'self-transcendence' that many people describe as part of their religious experiences which rely on existing understandings of human psychology, neurology, and physiology. They are plausible precisely because they are broadly and deeply supported by our current understandings of what sort of things comprise reality and what sort of interactions between those things are possible.

        On the other hand, the notion of a 'realm beyond the physical' seems to make no sense given our current understandings of physics and metaphysics. I haven't even seen a methodical and comprehensive definition of what such a realm would look like, let alone a plausible explanation for how and when that realm connects to ours. Therefore I think I'm justified in quickly dismissing claims that a supernatural reality exists, at least provisionally.
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          Mar 16 2012: Nicely put, Simon.
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          Mar 16 2012: R H,

          Your response attacks a misrepresentation of my position(s), and it is therefore irrelevant.

          "When did we get so grand that we thought our little selves on this pathetically tiny microdot of a dust ball in an oscure postiion in the universe can see its totality (might I add 'the known universe')?"—Where do I say that we can?

          "We've just begun to have confidence in scientific method within the last few hundred years. Yet we're 'there'? We 'get it' now?"—Where do I say that we do?

          "We can discount intuition, experience, sensitivity which we have yet to fully explore."—Where do I say that "we can discount intuition, experience, sensitivity"?

          "We discount through our self-importance and mutually agreed upon groupthink and prove we are correct to each other."—Argument ad hominem.

          "We like to be 'right' so we can destroy our 'opponent' rather than take in humility that which we can offer to each other for the betterment of all."—Argument ad hominem.

          "There is no evidence therefore it doesn't exist."—Where did I make this argument?
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        Mar 16 2012: Devin,

        For some odd reason it won't let me reply to your response to me (where you lay down the Kalam cosmological argument). What's up with that?

        There are lots of issues with the KCA. First, I reject premise 2. There may be "other universes" (I question the semantics when physicists speak of "multiverses") beyond what we call our universe; that which came into existence after the Big Bang. What is beyond "our universe" is unknowable to us, and we don't know if it came into existence or if it has always been here. Second, why is the belief in a creator more plausible than, say, an infinite regress? Third, I'm not certain how you infer from a timeless cause producing a temporal effect that that which did the causing is therefore personal. Fourth, if this creator is timeless, then doesn't that mean it is unchanging (assuming that time is change)? And if it's unchanging, how can it produce a temporal effect? Producing something, after all, implies change. Fifth, I'm not sure I understand your criticism of Hume's view of miracles. Could you rephrase? Lastly, regarding your remark of Haidt excluding a supernatural explanation, let me see if I can provide an example. Recently I watched a video of James Randi about how he exposed Uri Geller. Geller claimed that he could bend spoons and Randi was able to replicate the act himself without paranormal means; e.g., he could produce the same results naturally. Now, as Randi himself stated, this doesn't prove definitively that Geller isn't bending spoons via paranormal means, but since we have no evidence for the paranormal and all of the evidence points towards a natural explanation, is it not more rational to accept the natural justification over the paranormal one? If there was compelling evidence of a supernatural realm and its influence on the natural (would it still be supernatural?), I'm sure Haidt would take such an explanation into account, but as things stand there is no such evidence.
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          Mar 16 2012: Dear Paul, thank you! Just going over your list then...

          1) There has not been a single cosmological theory that has been able to successfully restore an infinite past. In 2003, three physicists Alan Guth, Arvin Borde, and Alexander Vilenkin, showed that ANY universe that has been on average expanding cannot be eternal in the past, but must have had an absolute beginning. This holds true even when General Relativity breaks down in the early split second of the universe.

          2) Philosophers have closed the door on the possibility of an infinite regress. They're impossible for two reasons. First, the existence of an actually infinite amount of things leads to absurdities, showing that it's nothing more than an idea in our minds, not something that accords with reality. Second, you can't get to an actual infinite through a regress, because before you can even get started, you need an event before it, and then one before it, and so and so forth. This is known as the impossibility of traversing the infinite.

          3) Please see my comments above.

          4) That's a good point. I'll have to think about that. :)

          5) Hume argued we can't rationally believe a miracle occurred, because to say you think an event occurred is to say that's the most probable event, but since miracles are (on his definition) the most intrinsically improbable event, you can't affirm them as the most probable. Thus you can never identify a miracle as what probably occurred. The problem in that reasoning is that it only considers the intrinsic improbability of a miracle occuring without considering the probability you would have the evidence for it, if it did not occur (which may be even MORE improbable).

          6) I do think we should prefer a natural explanation before moving to a supernatural one. It's only when all natural explanations fail that we should consider if there might be a supernatural one. But given the subject of Haidt's inquiry, he might consider if the people DID experience the supernatural.

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