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
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