Speaking of Non-Sequiturs …

On the Guardian web site, January 26, Julian Baggini critiqued an essay by Mark Vernon. Vernon, who is an agnostic, was criticizing “the modern atheist,” basing his critique on uncontroversial ideas “such as the fact that cognition is ‘embodied’ and does not take place in some kind of Cartesian ego which is distinct from our physicality.”

Supposedly atheists, under the influence of science-oriented philosophical traditions, value “knowledge that can claim objectivity,” while denigrating “subjective knowledge, which is gained by introspection, turning inwards … The upshot is that the modern sceptic is suspicious of subjective convictions.”

Baggini replies: “I’m afraid it’s all too common for defenders of faith to start off by piling up a whole load of interesting scientific findings, only to follow up with a plethora of non sequiturs.”

I agree, and I’d broaden that statement considerably. I wish I had a quarter for every time I’ve read some article that mentions two or three new (and still controversial) research studies, and draws sweeping conclusions about psychology, economics, politics, religion, etc.

Vernon notes that “spiritual directors advise individuals to make pilgrimages, to experience liturgies and rituals, and to discipline and pattern their lives.” He seems to suggest that these activities lead to new discoveries. Baggini, on the other hand, claims “that subjective experience, in all its forms, is a very unreliable detector of objective reality.”

My reply: You’re both right. Mark is right, in the sense that subjective experience gives us data about issues that would be hard to study scientifically. Example: When I worked as a psychotherapist I led personal growth workshops in which people delved into their own emotions, motivations, memories, fantasies, hopes and fears. It was common for them to make discoveries about values, priorities, and personal needs that would have been difficult to unearth through a scientific investigation.

Inward exploration can also deepen our understanding of what we already know. For instance, regardless of whether Joe Jones knows that he wants to be more assertive, after a few therapy sessions this fact may move from the back of his mind onto center stage, so that he acts upon it much more frequently. Facts such as these are not “known” in the same sense as knowing whether to check “true” or “false” on a quiz. They are known by degrees, and it’s the degree of knowledge that makes all the difference.

On the other hand, Baggini is right that subjective experience isn’t a particularly reliable way to establish theological truths. I notice that in Vernon’s essay, his comments about the benefits of spiritual practices mostly have to do with how these practices make people feel and act, not with whether the beliefs that grow out of these practices make any sense.

By the way, there is an intense debate among contemporary philosophers about whether we can learn about our own mental processes via introspection. See for example, Describing Inner Experience: Proponent Meets Skeptic, by Russell T. Hurlburt and Eric Schwitzgebel. I am currently writing a book about this issue and related topics. One of these days I’ll start a new blog on problems of consciousness.

For Julian’s essay see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/jan/26/modern-believer-not-suspicious-enough

For Mark Vernon’s: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/jan/17/faith-body-prayer 

Roger

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3 thoughts on “Speaking of Non-Sequiturs …

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with this! I think we have lots of implicit beliefs that we are not/hardly aware of, and sometimes events or discussions can bring a greater realisation of those. For example, I thought I believed in Christ’s resurrection but in the last year I have discovered that I didn’t feel very strongly about it at all, and that led to the discovery that I had only thought I believed in it because I needed that belief to maintain my membership of a religious group. I didn’t change what I thought about modern Biblical scholarship or ontology or metaphysics, but the relative strengths of the various arguments changed as I thought more deeply about other beliefs that underpinned the resurrection belief. So it was in many ways an analytical discovery (in the Kantian sense): no new information was needed; I just needed to make implicit beliefs more explicit and spell out the logical connections between them.

    I like the idea of personal discoveries and that is my own experience. In fact, I would say many of my transcendent/spiritual (if I can use that word without making any commitment to the supernatural) experiences have been to do with self-discovery and the journey of personal development. However, I would argue that in psychotherapy that what becomes more important to a client is often influenced by what the therapist pays attention to and reinforces, what other people say and do in a group therapy situation, and the interaction between the client’s thoughts and current circumstances. There is no such thing as objective therapy. So personal “discoveries” are not strictly “discoveries”.

    I think how people feel and behave as a result of religious practices IS something that can be measured, but would argue that it will be mediated by the meaning that people confer on the experiences they have during their religious practices, and that it will be moderated by various individual differences.

  2. Dear ChristianAtheist,

    I want to highlight two of your comments that seem especially insightful to me:

    1. “I didn’t change what I thought about modern Biblical scholarship or ontology or metaphysics, but the relative strengths of the various arguments changed as I thought more deeply…. So it was in many ways an analytical discovery (in the Kantian sense): no new information was needed; I just needed to make implicit beliefs more explicit and spell out the logical connections between them.

    2. There is no such thing as objective therapy. So personal “discoveries” are not strictly “discoveries”.

    This fomer therapist entirely agrees, and I’d generalize the suggestion: Very few new beliefs are pure “discoveries” in the sense of being objectively verifiable in some straightforward way.

    Roger

  3. Yes, I would agree with your generalization. The process of forming or changing beliefs are affected so much by our environment, e.g. the people from whom we hear persuasive information, the way in which the information is presented, and how those interact with our own experiences and preferences. I think especially of cultural differences: I would take much more seriously the beliefs of someone I felt an intellectual, political and artistic/cultural affinity with. We know from the psychology of attitude change that we are influenced by the source of the message (the credibility of the messenger, etc), the quality (e.g. number of arguments, whether counter-arguments are dealt with, etc) and the recipient (level of attention, motivation, cognitive ability, strength of existing attitudes, openness to new ideas, etc). Plus we process information at one of two levels, systematically or peripherally/ heuristically, depending on factors such as cognitive load, motivation, etc. (See e.g. Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow.) If you would like to know more, please say!

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