Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ontologically, All Experience is on an Even Playing Field

Response to kmabom

First of all, thank you for your compliment and for commenting on my blog. You, likewise, seem very handy with words.

Now, for my critique, I find your blind faith in reason to be a bit naive. You yourself admit the limitations of subjectivity, but then go on to act as though we can know things through "physical evidence," without providing any reason why so called "physical evidence" is preferable to so called emotional, spiritual, intuitive and personal evidence.

All physical evidence is mediated through our faculties, meaning there is no guarantee of any fidelity to any objective reality. Furthermore, we have very good reasons to believe that we are not very good at observing reality, free of interpretation. Hence, Nietzsche's statement that "there are no facts, only interpretations." That which we observe is more a reflection on internal mental structures than on an external objective reality. Philosophers of science Kuhn and Feyerabend have shown very clearly that paradigms determines the observations (and not the other way around) - phenomenon that contradict theory are simply unobservable prior to the acquisition of a new conceptual framework from which to observe them. Hence Copernicus precedes Galileo.

Furthermore, I find it interesting that you should use Galileo as your example of someone who used "physical means to uncover a better explanation," because both ideas - that Galileo relied on physical evidence and that his explanations were better - are highly problematic.

In Against Method, Paul Freyerbend has conducted research that shows that Galileo's theory was not only radical, but was also just flat-out irrational.

None of Galileo's observations or experiments could ever be duplicated by his peers in the scientific community - i.e. the academics of his age. Records tell of Galileo bringing his instruments to dinner parties. He would claim to observe incredible things in the night sky, but no one else at all could ever see the things he was claiming to see. As reproducibility of outcomes is a central tenant of "objective" scientific research, it cannot be said with a straight face that Galileo's theory was based on reasonable "physical means". Furthermore his drawings, "maps", of the moon and mars appear to be entirely works of fiction, as they have absolutely no fidelity to the surface of the moon, as viewed today from modern telescopes (And again the people of his day never saw anything like Galileos drawings when they looked through his primitive spy-glass). Furthermore, Galileo's calculations, derived from his theory, of the movement of celestial bodies, were grossly inaccurate; On the other hand, the much more strongly developed Aristotelian theory with its mathematically sophisticated epi-cycles, was much better at predicting the movement of planets in the night sky. Thus, Galileo's theory actually confirmed much worse to physical evidence then the dominant theory of the day.

Therefore, given that, at the time, the Geo-centric Aristotelian theory produced results which were more closely aligned with observed phenomenon, it is ironic that you would stake your claim that "reason" and "physicality" should be the basis for determining beliefs on Galileo. It was only because people like Galileo pursued their theories in spite of the irrationality of said theories that these beliefs were eventually developed - through arduous series of refutations and refinements - into what we have today. Therefore, the take-away lesson from Galileo is that if one feels intuitively that something is true and right, then one should develop that belief, regardless of the irrationality and "physical" evidence to the contrary. All beliefs systems, theories, and religions should be developed into their most sophisticated manifestations. The pursuit of truth is thus multifaceted and conditional, with multiple lines of inquiry.

Finally, there's also a good argument that your insistence on "reason" as a way of revealing nature, is part of an ongoing heterosexual male narrative of dominion (domination) of nature, which is not entirely devoid of sexism. But I'm not going to develop this idea any further at this time.

Now, what you fail to recognize is that among the myriad of interpretations and "truths" out there, there is no singular "Truth" with a capital 'T'. In assuming that there is an objective knowable Truth out there which can, and should, "sort among all these" differences in an authoritative fashion, you make the same mistake of idolatry (trying to force the name of God unto something physical and therefore transitory and unsustainable) as the inquisitors of Galileo's day (and all other absolutists). (This mistake is limited to your logic, and I don't mean to trivialize the awful experience of those who live in oppressive regimes, and I'm of course not saying that you are guilty of the inquisition, merely that your guilty assuming something without basis.) All phenomenological experience exists on an even playing field - so called physical evidence is just as compelling as intuitive and "spiritual evidence" - and no more so.

I'm afraid many mormons, like me, also commonly make the same mistake of idolotry in assuming they have "the Truth". I'm hoping to somewhat disabuse some of them of their naivety with this talk. However, I share a common paradigm with the mormon community within which I was raised. Furthermore, I have had experiences which seem to support these beliefs, and therefore feel comfortable expressing this shared communal beliefs with others - such as how prayer, love of neighbor and community involvement (church) all seem to better my life. If someone feels something as a result of hearing my words, and wants to join this community of church-goers that's fine, if they don't that's fine too, I'll still try to love them, because they have their own truth to pursue. This is the proper attitude for mormon missionary work.


  1. "[T]here's also a good argument that your insistence on "reason" as a way of revealing nature, is part of an ongoing heterosexual male narrative of dominion (domination) of nature, which is not entirely devoid of sexism."

    You can't drop this bomb and then not explicate it further ha ha. I'd very much like to see you flesh this out, because I'm skeptical.

    But don't support your claim with reason, because we that's apparently sexist. ;)

  2. haha. ya well, you're right. i prolly shouldn't have dropped that. we can have a conversation about it sometime, but its not an argument i care enough to flesh out in writing (because I'm not particularly committed to it).

  3. response pt 2:

    The problem with supernatural arguments or truth claims about the nature of God is that they cannot be confirmed or refuted in any satisfying way because these arguments can always escape into the realm of the unknown or unknowable. However, as science and human understanding continue to progress, religious and supernatural claims are increasingly pushed to the fringes, and are doomed to continue to regress further. Einstein articulates this point well:

    “To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot. But I am persuaded that such behavior on the part of the representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress.”

    On my first reading that last line struck me as harsh, but the more I have thought about it the more I tend to agree. It’s not to say that serving others and participating in the communal, warm and fuzzy aspects of religious observance is harmful to humanity. But you have to consider the prospect of embracing those types of values in the absence of religion. I would never attempt to argue against the value of community involvement, but why does it have to be couched in specific truth claims about the supernatural? If, for instance, the Plan of Salvation or temple work were not something you actually believed in, then why would you continue to plow vast amounts of resources (both time and money) into these types of efforts, when you could instead focus on eradicating disease or feeding the hungry?

  4. response pt 1:

    I categorically disagree with your contention that all phenomenological experience is on an even playing field, and that physical evidence is just as compelling as “spiritual evidence” (which incidentally strikes me as a glaring oxymoron). Imagine the calamity that would ensue if our healthcare system operated according to this principle. Suppose that you became ill and needed your disease diagnosed and treated in a town with two doctors. Doctor A studied this disease while a medical student at Johns Hopkins, where she learned in great detail about the scientific community’s analysis of the disease’s pathology. Doctor B went on a spiritual journey in Nepal where she had a vivid vision in which she received a revelation from God that all diseases are treatable by bloodletting. Both doctors are genuinely convinced of the soundness of their claims, so which do you choose for treatment? Would you then make your philosophical argument that the experience of each doctor exists on an even playing field? Whether you are willing to admit it or not, if your life were on the line you would place a premium on the physical evidence behind Doctor A’s education relative to supernatural claims made by Doctor B.

    I brought up a point in my original response that I feel you haven’t satisfactorily addressed: how does one sort among the world’s mutually incompatible truth claims that are held dear by throngs of convinced and sincere followers? And if your response to that is limited to equivocating statements regarding the difference between “truth” and “Truth”, then it seems that you are conceding that any defined set of spiritual beliefs is meaningless. Although I appreciate your sentiment regarding the tendency of some Mormons (along with some members of other religions) to claim the privileged position of holding sole ownership of the full and complete truth, can you really fault them for that? Can you fault them for believing the foundational stories they have been taught to believe, for accepting the Church’s account of the First Vision, for accepting the divinity of the Book of Mormon, or for believing in the Plan of Salvation? These are fundamental, inseparable elements of being a faithful member of the LDS church, and they each rely on extremely specific ideas regarding the Truth regarding the nature of God and humanity’s purpose.

    Consider the astounding achievements of science and the scientific method over the past 500 years. What have disagreeing truth claims about the supernatural achieved for us in that time? Steven Weinberg makes a great observation:

    “Those who think that they have had religious experiences of their own have to judge for themselves the quality of that experience. But the great majority of the adherents to the world’s religions are relying not on religious experience of their own but on revelations that were supposedly experienced by others. It might be thought that this is not so different from the theoretical physicist relying on the experiments of others, but there is a very important distinction. The insights of thousands of individual physicists have converged to a satisfying (though incomplete) common understanding of physical reality. In contrast, the statements about God or anything else that have been derived from religious revelation point in radically different directions. After thousands of years of theological analysis, we are no closer now to a common understanding of the lessons of religious revelation.”

  5. 1. I think your Einstein quote does present a valid point. Religion, and God, can only be defended by negation - continually saying where he is not. God - whom I do my best to open myself to the possibility of believing - is something infinite, and is therefore not perfectly accessible to a finite intellect. For this reason spiritual experiences are always sublime (in the sense developed by Schopenhauer). It is the sensation created by something infinite, majestic and entirely other. It is always a mere glimpse, a frission of something greater. Therefore there will always be a great deal of mystery involved in religious experience. I have felt these sublime sensations during different times in my life, and there is just as much "reality" in the mysterious presence I've felt as in daily experiences of chairs, and sofas, and lamps, but there is much more truth in mystery. I probably should have argued that ontologically, spiritual, intuitive, cultural and narrative being is more important and is on a higher plane of meaning than mere observation - especially because the gaze is already saturated with all of this baggage, and observation is inseparable from belief/faith - therefore, my investigations of truth function at a more fundamental level than your superficial analysis.

    2. I don't think you have to believe in God to be a good person. Therefore, I certainly have "considered the prospect of embracing those types of values [serving others and participating in the communal, warm and fuzzy aspects of religious observance] in the absence of religion." And I find it extremely condescending that you assume I haven't. I am, for instance, an avid student of Nietzsche and have carefully investigated ethics outside of religion. I think theists and atheists should both be engaged in - albeit feeble - attempts to love others and achieving solidarity with the human race.

  6. 2. (cont.) I think you're criticism of Mormon practice is misguided. Mormons may have more free-time to pursue material aid to others if they weren't going to the temple, but without the spiritual narrative that includes temple work, I think the average Mormon would be less likely, not more, to spend time in humanitarian projects. Temple attendance, and genealogy is part of a Mormon praxis that helps imbue our lives with meaning and gives us motivation to help others. Furthermore, observational evidence suggests that this is true and that Mormon praxis works! Active Mormons are actually much more likely to volunteer than the average bloke. In a Duke University Study Wilson and Janoski found that, "the mean volunteering rate of weekly church attenders is nearly twice that of the non-attenders."

    3. To address your Doctor story. First of all, it's a loaded question. The choice you present in your allegory is an absolute non-choice. Of course, I would go to Doctor A, the whole scenario is set-up to force you into that conclusion. Furthermore, there are so many cultural assumptions that you rely on to make that decision (cultural assumptions aren't very good "scientific evidence"). In my culture - and according to my traditions - of course, you go to an MD when you get sick. You're not really saying anything when you prove that. Everyone knows you go to an MD when you get sick, duh.

    However, if you're further trying to say that genuine tribal remedies are inferior to Western medicine, then I find you to be incredibly culturally insensitive and downright naive. Wester Medicine works for Westerners and Asian and tribal remedies work for Asians and tribal peoples - and they certainly wouldn't trade their methods for what essentially amounts to Western quackery.

  7. 3. (continued) Seriously, you are using fear of the Other - specifically fear of supposedly inferior tribal medicines - to try to brow-beat me in to respecting the authority of reason. This is a terrible argument. And really demonstrates how authoritative (authoritarian) your thinking is. Which brings me to my next point:

    4. I feel that I have satisfactorily addressed your, "we need authoritative knowledge," argument. Your desire for authoritative knowledge aside, there is no logical basis for believing that any human knowledge is authoritative (the second you do you actually engage in very non-scientific thinking). Furthermore, by accepting that no knowledge is authoritative (and rejecting science as dogma/religion, i.e. sciencism) you open the door to the possibility of creating interesting interpretations for human phenomena. Galileo is a text-book example of this kind of thinking which throws authoritative thinking out the window. Finally, your Einstein quote actually further bolsters my argument for Religion as a site of resistance to authoritative thinking - as it must always exist on the fringes of knowledge (always shrouded in mystery), and therefore is difficult to appropriate as rationally authoritative (which I agree it most definitely is not).

    In fact it is you who has ignored arguments. You don't address the "authoritarian fallacy" that I have labored a great deal in developing. I have really decimated your, "we need authority", argument and yet you keep writing as though it is an undisputed point.

    Wienberg's observation that religion lacks consensus also bolsters my point that religion resists consensus (authority) and is therefore an important site of resistance from the power-knowledge produced by rationalism. However Wienberg is wrong in his characterization of theists as relying wholly on authority - if this were the case than there would be perfect consensus. Instead, each theists beliefs are personal, and while influenced by cultural forces, are unique and wholly irreducible to any authoritative source. I've already expressed that I have had personal experiences that suggest something, which we Mormons call God, that is wholly Other to myself.

    Wienberg is also wrong in his characterization of physics (and sciences). There is no consensus in physics. There is a dominant paradigm which guides much of the methodological praxis of physics, but this is not to say that the dominant paradigm has any unique authority based on the number of adherents (if this were the case then there would be absolutely no reason for us to have ever listened to Galileo given that the consensus of physicists at the time was Aristotelian geocentrism). In physics, and science, there is no "consensus" are only competing theories. Soon there will be a new dominant paradigm in physics which will guide the praxis - which as Kuhn points out not to say that there is progress, an inching towards the truth; rather only a new parallax world-view from which we gaze.

  8. After reading your responses I'm starting to think we may be more on the same page than I originally thought. I appreciate your perspective on the mysterious nature of spiritual experience and I have similar feelings.

    As for my doctor analogy, of course it was set up to have only one choice. My goal was just to bring things down a notch from the numinous philosophical direction the argument was headed and to put it into terms that are meaningful to people from a practical perspective. You can't sit there and argue that one person's vision or emotional state carries as much weight to others as do hard facts.

    Let me make this next point clear: I don't desire authoritative knowledge about the supernatural, because I think it is impossible. What upsets me is when other people make specific claims regarding authoritative spiritual knowledge. As I said previously, it appears that your approach to the supernatural really renders specific statements about religion or God meaningless at the collective level.

    To your point about religion as a site of resistance to authoritative thinking… You have to be kidding me. If you replaced religion with spirituality, you may have a point. But in the world's organized religious institutions, the membership is not defined by the unique religious perspectives of individuals but by what they collectively believe. 'Questioning' may be explicitly encouraged up to a point, but it is ultimately frowned upon in instances where it conflicts with the party view. The Mormon Church, for better or for worse, is extremely authoritarian in this regard. One has to look no further than the structure of the required lesson manuals and curriculum, or to consider the way in which disciplinary actions are handled. Or look at the academic environment at religious institutions like BYU in comparison to more secular schools--which would you argue is more authoritarian? Anyway, moving on...

    Dominant scientific paradigms aren't just popularly held beliefs, they have predictive capacity and are verified by a confluence of data. To argue as Kuhn does that there is no such thing as "progress" doesn't sit well with me. I suppose you could argue about how progress should be defined, but by many measures the scientific community is making it. Look at lengthening life expectancies, etc.

    I agree with your point that for some, identifying with a religious narrative and performing rituals helps to give one a setting in which he can attempt to connect to the supernatural and be inspired to do good for others. But here is where I suspect we begin to really differ (correct me if I'm wrong): does it matter if the rituals and fundamental beliefs of that religion have an actual basis? Does it matter if Joseph saw what he said he saw, if the historical setting for the Book of Mormon actually existed, if temple ordinances were actually revealed to man by God? To me, it absolutely matters.

    I should clarify that I'm not after 100% evidence that a religion's truth claims are valid, but when a religion's foundational truth claims become so obviously impossible/anachronistic/contrived, then I can't intellectually allow myself to continue to identify with that faith. Though I may miss out on the value that is found in the community aspects of being a member of a specific faith, I am still free to attempt to connect with the ethereal/divine in other ways.

    In any event, all I can say is that I wish more of the LDS membership were as thoughtful about these issues as you are and had beliefs as flexible as yours appear to be. It has been my experience, unfortunately, that this type of thinking is frowned upon in official settings.

  9. You're mistaken in assuming that we're on the same page. I'm afraid we have vastly views on the basis of reality that are likely irreconcilable (which is true of all people but I think particularly so in this instance).

    I never claim that you want "authoritative knowledge about the supernatural"; Rather, you seek to completely supplant all other ways of revealing "truth" (including so-called supernatural impressions) with sciencism (which, as I've demonstrated and you have never rebutted, is harmful to the actual process of science). Therefore I am winning this debate at the point that your insistence on "reason" is in fact unreasonable.

    Next, I concede that BYU and other mormon institutions can often be dogmatic and authoritarian. This is something which I do seem to agree with you. However, discipline (a halmark of authoritarianism) is not on its own entirely problematic - every community relies on coercion to constitute and direct itself (as does each subject); On the other hand, Firing people for their beliefs while professing to want the rest of the world to be open to ours (as BYU has done) is highly problematic.

    Furthermore, I would reject universal truth claims just as readily from a mormon as from you (It is true that this probably conflicts with some mormon beliefs, but the church is much more flexible than you believe, every more has a unique set of beliefs which are irreducible to church dogma).

    Furthermore, the official emphasis on "personal revelation" fosters a great deal of diversity and unique insight within the ranks of the church.

    You are right that we do differ in the idea that religious experience needs "basis" in "reality", in that there is no one Reality (with a capital 'R') which religion would need to be based on. This assumption that you can grasp the Real, or that the Real even exists is the major fallacy behind all your reasoning that you continue to ignore (until you defend this assumption with some better arguments please stop posting).

    Again, Reality is a matter of interpretation. Every persons "reality" is different; However, the very concept of "Real" requires that reality be more than interpretation - i.e. that it transcend human experience (as interpretation) and constitute itself in some higher field. However this higher field does not exist (except perhaps in metaphysics which is obviously not "Real" in that is imaginary). Therefore, reality simply is not.

    Therefore, where you "see" absolutely "no basis" in "reality", I see something different. Furthermore, neither of these interpretations is outright wrong - some interpretations may be more beautiful and the consequences may be problematic but they are never outright "wrong" in the sense of being non-factual, because once again, as Nietzsche said, there are no facts, only interpretations. If you want a really good argument as to why believing in God is not beautiful you should read Nietszche, who still holds the honor of having developed the most devastating critique of Christianity as something aesthetically undesirable.

    However, even if you do figure out how to argue in this way it's still likely that I'll prefer my own interpretation. I think the most we can hope for is that through discussion we may succeed in assisting the other (me) in refining their (my) picture of the universe. This is probably the best shot any of us have at intellectual synthesis, short of capitulation (which despite its merits, I don't have it in me to try).

  10. Finally, why are you wasting so much energy on this lowly blog? Did my buddy Jon put you up to this or something?