TED Conversations

Devin Tarr

Master's Student, California State University Chico

This conversation is closed.

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.


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • Mar 16 2012: Devin Tarr, you said

    "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."

    You have crafted your argument with the appearance of scientific process, but some portions of your argument reveal that you reasoned backwards from conclusion to evidence, rather than using the scientific process of reasoning from evidence to conclusion. "spaceless", "timeless", "immaterial", and "powerful" relate to "space", "time", "matter", and "energy", but you have tacked on "personal" for no apparent reason, other than it relates to your preferred conclusion, the existence of a "transcendent personal Creator".

    By the way, does it really make sense to speak of a "timeless cause"? Our notion of "causality" is inextricably bound up with our conception of time. For event A to be considered the cause of event B, not only must event B be a consequence of event A, but event A must precede event B in time.
    • Mar 16 2012: He's giving the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The idea behind it is that an 'uncaused causer' must have agency and must transcend the realm of causality itself, ergo personal and timeless. You can find some good comprehensive refutations of it on google.
      • thumb
        Mar 16 2012: I would love to truly engage in this argument. I currently believe it's sound, but if it's unsound, I don't want to continue using it.

        To clarify then, I'm not claiming that God "transcends the realm of causality itself". Far from it. In fact, our understanding of causality is deeper than being physical. It's rooted in the premise that "something can't come from nothing". Things don't just "pop" into being. Causality is the concept that refers to something bringing something else about. Hence, it's not rooted in our conception of time. But further Carlin, temporal causality does not require that events precede others in time. There can be simultaneous causation as well. Imagine a bowling ball that's been eternally resting on a pillow. The cause of the depression in the pillow is simultaneous with the bowling ball being there.

        In regard to the universe then, the time at which God caused the universe is when time began. God's causing the universe is simultaneous with it coming into being. In fact, that's the most common sense understanding of how that would happen.

        Finally, in regard to the cause being personal, there are two reasons here:
        1) What kind of thing could fit the following properties? Spaceless, timeless, immaterial, and unchanging? Well, two things: an abstract object, or an unembodied mind. Seeing that abstract objects can't "cause" anything then, the cause of the universe must be an unembodied mind.
        2) A timeless cause, if it were impersonal, would produce a timeless effect. The fact that we see that the effect began though, when the cause must be timeless, means the cause must have the ability to bring the effect about or not--making it personal.

        For those two reasons then, we can be confident the cause of the universe must be personal.
        • Mar 16 2012: So let me address some of the points you've raised.

          '[T]he cause of the universe must be an unembodied mind.'

          The problem here is with the notion of an 'unembodied mind'. As far as I have been able to tell, the best explorations of what a 'mind' is absolutely require embodiment. They specify that the mind is something that either comprises or is made possible by the function of the brain, and the processes therein. As such they lie within the domain of the philosophy of consciousness, cognitive science, psychology, and neurology. I recognise that we can often identify properties of a mind - an appearance of reflection, intentionality, and agency - but I have no idea how those properties could exist outside of the substrate and process - the meat and motion of the brain - which appear to produce them.

          I recognise that you could now introduce an argument that the mind is a product of the soul or some other form of mind-body dualism, but such an argument is so unsupportable from a scientific standpoint that the honest thing to do would be to renounce all appeals to science in other premises of your arguments. I also think there is a tautology lurking here, in which you claim that disembodied minds are possible because of the existence of disembodied minds.

          '2) A timeless cause, if it were impersonal, would produce a timeless effect. The fact that we see that the effect began though, when the cause must be timeless, means the cause must have the ability to bring the effect about or not--making it personal. '

          Since as I have already stated, the idea of a mind outside of a cognitive processing unit such as a brain makes no sense to me, nor I would wager to most expert thinkers on minds, by positing a personal causer you are offering no escape from the problem of causal regress. There is no way in which a mind can escape the need for a cause, nor have agency beyond the physical conditions that produce it.
        • Mar 16 2012: A further point: the origin of the universe seems to be one of those incredibly difficult problems into which physicists have been able to gain some possible insight only through the use of a scientific method which is predicated upon hard materialism. If you are able to show through logic that certain cosmological theories suggest that there must be a non-material part of reality, you have shown that those theories are incompatible with the methods that produced them. Rather than revealing some important aspect of reality, you've simply revealed an error in the science.

          Of course, I haven't encountered many logicians or philosophers of physics who think that the Kalam Cosmological Argument is valid.
        • Mar 17 2012: Devin,

          You said "In regard to the universe then, the time at which God caused the universe is when time began."

          Of course it has not been established that God caused the universe, and although that seems perilously close to begging the question, I'll set that aside for the moment.

          Note that it has not even been established that time began when our universe was created. If time is viewed as one of the four dimensions that we commonly perceive, then how do we know that the time dimension did not exist prior to the three spatial dimensions? And if time is viewed as simply our perception of the sequential ordering of events, how do we know that events did not occur within other universes prior to the creation of our own?

          Until those questions are resolved I don't see how any argument for the existence of a supernatural being can be based on the abstract notion of "timelessness".
        • Mar 19 2012: Devin, you said "I would love to truly engage in this argument." [the Kalam Cosmological Argument] "I currently believe it's sound, but if it's unsound, I don't want to continue using it."

          Did you mean that if you become convinced that the Kalam Cosmological Argument is unsound you would then question the existence of God? Or did you mean that you would then switch to some other argument for the existence of God? The former implies that you are presenting the argument because it led you to your belief in God. The latter implies that something else led you to believe in God, and you are searching for the best logical rationalization for your pre-existing belief.

          I can't be certain which is the case, but I have my suspicions. Many individuals come to a belief in God early in childhood, and I doubt that the Kalam Cosmological Argument is the reason.

          Children are told that God, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy exist, and they believe the adults who told them these things. As the child grows older it becomes apparent that the adults don't really believe in the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, but they do believe in the existence of God (or at least claim that they do). Why? I think it is simply because the existence of God, unlike Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, is not easily disproved, and provides a handy catch-all (albeit simplistic) explanation for many more of the mysteries of life. Why is there life on Earth? God wanted it that way. Why does the universe exist? God wanted it that way. Explaining away such important questions as the whim of a magical being is certainly easier than examining the evidence, formulating a theory, making predictions based on the theory, testing those predictions, and abandoning or revising the theory if the predictions are in error.

          This argument has been refuted many times, here in this conversation and elsewhere.
        • thumb
          Mar 19 2012: I agree with Carlin and would like to add another point. People in general don't like uncertainty, but, as it stands, there are still many unexplained mysteries in the universe, hence the God concept helps to get rid of uncertainties (since everything that cannot be explained through science will be explained through God0.
          This was already so in the past when even thunder and lightening was considered the work of God.
          So hopefully, the more we understand the universe and everything in it, the less need for a God should we have.
        • thumb
          Mar 19 2012: A natural process could have caused it.

          Just like evolution leading to the diversity of life doesn't need a personality although some people see god behind evolution
      • thumb
        Mar 17 2012: Those are some great points! I think this will probably be one of my last responses. I must say, this conversation has started to become somewhat exhausting. It's like debating 12 people at once, with everyone putting forward different points, lol.

        On unembodied minds, I an indeed a substance-dualist. Unfortunately I haven't spent as much time investigating the philosophy behind it. I recall reading some persuasive works in the past that noted that intentionality, the awareness of ourselves, our personal identity existing through physical change in our brain, and free will are all reasons to believe the mind is an entity that uses the brain, but is its own entity nonetheless. If in fact the mind does have those properties, and is its own entity, that not all beings would require the physical substrata of a brain. But again, this is an area that I have not investigated in depth. I'm thankful you've brought this point up though as it's shown me an area I need to look into to see if the Kalam is in fact sound.

        Regarding the time issue, that is also an excellent point. I'm going to have to look into that one as well. The possibility of personhood in a timeless state does seem troubling to me. I'll look into those things, and if I find anything interesting, I'll let you know.

        To Carlin,
        I admit that science has not closed the door that our universe may be one of many. Though there's no evidence for the multi-verse, it's possible. What's important to note though is that in 2003, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem showed that even the mutliverse must have had an absolute beginning, which would show that a timeless cause produced a temporal effect.

        Finally, to both of you, thank you for your kindness and respect. Simon, in particular I see I need to look further into whether an unembodied and timeless mind is a coherent concept.

        Warmly and sincerely,
        • Mar 17 2012: I'm very gratified to hear that what I said has been of some interest to you. One of my favourite books discussing consciousness, personhood, and the mind is 'I am a Strange Loop'.

          Once a friend asked me what I think it means to be conscious, to be a person, and to have a mind. I answered that I think that we tell a story about ourselves to ourselves. It's a story about what has happened to us, what we've done, and what we want. A narrative has a necessary temporal component: it requires a sequence of events. I later discovered 'higher order theory' and felt really good about myself ;)

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.