[Note: An incomplete version of this post published earlier. Sorry about that!]
Recently, California State University, Sacramento philosopher Matt McCormick recorded an interview with Luke Muehlhauser in which he discussed atheism. A lively debate broke out in the comments section, and there Matt challenged defenders of reformed epistemology (RE) as follows:
“Maybe you all can just help me understand what this immediate, direct, non-inferential, basic apprehension of God is, exactly. I’m not really interested in theoretical interpretations or descriptions that are couched in abstract theological babble. I just want to hear some descriptions of the actual phenomenology of these moments, experiences, or apprehensions. Describe the sorts of feelings, sights, smells, or apprehensions that are occurring when one is having this direct hookup with God. For analogies, we have the Jodie Foster contacts aliens example and a guy who knows he didn’t commit a crime because he recalls being at home watching TV on Saturday night and not robbing a liquor store, or whatever. But obviously, one’s encounters with the almighty creator of the universe and master of all reality aren’t really going to be like either of these in any shape, manner, or form. So what exactly are they like? And what is it about them that engenders such profound confidence and such strong ontological conclusions?”
I decided to respond to the challenge.
You can find what I wrote, as well as Matt McCormick’s response, at Matt’s blog, but in case you don’t want to read my rambling comment, I’ll summarize the relevant portion:
By and large, immediate, direct, non-inferential, basic apprehension of God works like this–at least, it works like this for me:
(1) I have some experience E.
(2) It occurs to me that a powerful, benevolent being (“God”) is responsible for E.
(3) The thought that God is responsible for E just make sense.
In my response to McCormick, I addressed (3) first, by drawing an analogy to experiences of sense-making I’ve had in my academic life. I took the example of trying to make sense of Kant’s various positions on the nature of freedom. I couldn’t figure out how to make them all cohere until I came upon a description of how Berkeley understood freedom in Wayne Waxman’s Kant and the Empiricists. Once I came upon that description, Kant’s various writings on the subject seemed to be unified by a single principle that allowed me to see them all in a new light: I now saw them as different ways of articulating that main principle, or as different ways of exploring the consequences of accepting that principle. In other words, upon thinking of them all in a different way, I could see how they related together–they all became pieces of a single puzzle, pieces that fit together and completed the puzzle. And now they all made sense; this was evidence for the rectitude of that interpretation.
As for (1), I gave an example from my own life–an example that has to be treated somewhat apprehensively, because I can’t be sure that I remember its components correctly. One day I was sitting in church and I thought that my fellow parishioners didn’t take Christianity seriously. I became angry at God for making this kind of person attracted to Christianity instead of more admirable people. Getting angry at God made me feel liberated–I felt like getting angry was not only permissible, but what I should be doing, and therefore a feeling that was okay to have, even in church (hence the feeling of liberation–I felt like there was something I could do that I earlier didn’t think I was allowed). The feeling of liberty in expressing my displeasure at God also gave me a sense of authenticity–I felt like I was being true to my deepest beliefs and desires. But there followed upon this sense of authenticity a feeling of thankfulness to God. I was thankful because of (a) God’s allowing even anger at him to be a kind of following of him; it opened up new vistas for ways I could be myself in relation to God; and (b) God’s creating a world wherein this kind of thing was possible.
I also added that this set of feelings–or any religious experience, in fact–could have a neurobiological origin, and that I would expect just such an origin if God designed us to come to know him.
In response to my presentation of (1)-(3), as well as my explication of (1)-(3), Matt responded with the following objections:
(I) RE is supposed to work like this: you have an immediate, direct, non-inferential, basic apprehension of God. This apprehension is so strong and clear that it is supposed to make one’s theism extremely resistant to objections. My apprehension of God, such as it is, isn’t anything like this.
(II) The analogy between making sense of an academic work and making sense of one’s experiences is inapt. Part of what one is supposed to conclude from one’s experience of God is that God is real, whereas one’s conclusion, upon accepting an one interpretation of an academic work, has nothing to do with positing the existence of a certain kind of entity. Sense-making, though, might be useful as a reason to believe in the real existence of unobservable particles, such as the Higgs-Boson.
(III) I posit the existence of God in an emotional state, to make sense of certain things that occur during that emotional state. But there are lots of things that explain my emotions better than what I posited, and moreover, emotions aren’t guides to what really exists; indeed, emotions often make us misunderstand data and jump to false conclusions about things.
(IV) Even if God’s existing makes sense of my feelings, it makes lots of other things a lot harder to understand–for instance, other people’s non-theistic religious experiences, the problem of divine hiddenness, the problem of evil, etc. In other words, the explanatory gain one gets for making sense of one’s religious experiences is off-set by the increase in ad hocness that results in order to respond to those other problems.
(V) McCormick also takes issue with my claim that if God exists, he would hard-wire us to believe in him. McCormick thinks that this is a problematic response for a variety of reasons, but here’s just one: there are much more reliable ways God could have come up with for us to believe in him.
I shall respond to (I)-(V) in the comments section below, but I’d be interested in hearing what everyone else thinks.